Last month I wrote about congressional leadership; this month the American electorate has called for the current Congressional leadership to change. Change in Congress, like many organizations, does not come easily. Over the next several months we will observe Congress attempt to reorganize itself. It is a process that has happened many times over the past 217 years. Peaceful power transitions in Washington, DC, whether in the White House or in Congress, are one of the great hallmarks of the American Republic.
First however, there are a couple of constitutional ground rules that must be followed. Every two years, a new Congress is initiated and all legislation in the old Congress that hasn't been sent to the President is dead. Congressional Leadership positions must be renewed for the new two year Congress. This change begins, as mandated by the Constitution, on January 3, 2007 (see: 20th Amendment). Second, until January 3, 2007, the old Congress is still in session and can pass any legislation. This, despite the fact that the new Congress has already been identified and elected by the voters. From November 8th - January 2nd, the old Congress still legislates. The great old term for this last reprieve of the old Congress is "lame duck." Relatively long "lame duck" sessions of the legislature are a uniquely American experience. I am not aware of such a long period of time for a legislative body to exist after an election anywhere else.
This odd lame duck period is the result of a bygone era of slow transportation and the non-executive nature of the US Congress. Unlike most other legislatures in the world, the executive functions of Government, such as the Treasury and the Armed Forces, are not administered and operated out of Congress, but out of the Executive Branch and the President. The term "lame duck" may also apply to the President, too. After the first Tuesday in November 2008, President Bush will technically be a lame duck President just like the current Congress. A new President will have been selected, but President Bush will still be in office until January 20, 2009.
A lame duck Congress can be mischievous, especially when the majority party will be in the minority in January. Don't expect too much mischief this time however; the party margins in both Chambers now and in January are very, very small.
Congress will start fresh again for the 110th time on January 3, 2007. Things were made interesting on November 8, as the electorate decided to make a change to some of the membership of the Congress. About thirty seats have new members and their party affiliations are different, so the party that will organize the House of Representatives in January will be different. A new Congress and new leadership. A Congress changes every two years but changing the party leadership of a chamber doesn't happen very often. The last time the House of Representatives changed from one party to another was twelve years ago. Prior to that, it was forty years for the next change.
Let me try to explain what happened on November 8. It is best illustrated by the House of Representatives. There are 435 seats in the House, each representing a defined district within a state. These districts are created every 10 years as the result of the decennial census. The precision which these districts are drawn is phenomenal and the result is one of the most significant factors effecting our democracy - gerrymandering. Tiny neighborhoods of Republican or Democratic voters are linked to other neighborhoods in some cases using the width of a singe road to connect them. As a result, the vast majority of House Congressional districts are pretty safe seats for the party. Republicans and Democrats effectively carve up their states to maximize their voters. There are a few seats (about 50 of them) that couldn't be carved up so precisely and they are the only seats that alternate between parties. This year, the Democrats took more of those competitive seats than the Republicans. The parties trade off these seats each election cycle and sometimes old members come back to their old seats.
This gerrymander factor is not new; it was developed at the very beginning of the Republic. Technology has made it extremely precise. If voters would stop moving around the country, the Congress could be crafted so that an even tinier percentage of the seats are ever really in play. In the 1970's pundits used to recall that the US House of Representatives changed less frequently than the Soviet Politburo. Another significant result of precision gerrymandering worth noting is that most of the leadership in both parties is from "safe" districts, so they remain during a party shift of the House (in most cases).
Occasionally the gerrymandering system is overwhelmed by factors beyond its control, such as a seismic shift of party allegiances. This does not appear to have happened this year; it only happens a couple of times every century.
The swing districts this year went to the Democrats, so Congress must now set down to the task of reorganizing itself. A new Speaker of the House must be selected and this time he/she will be a Democrat. Majority positions become Minority and vice versa. Committee Chairpersons need to be selected and committee positions adjusted. In the House of Representatives such a change in party control is much more traumatic than in the Senate. The Senate lately has switched parties several times in the past decade as it is smaller and even more closely divided. The Senate also has some very casual rules of procedure which requires a super-majority of 60 to bring any measure up for debate. Since no party has had more than 60 seats since the 1970s, a minority party Senator is not without real recourse or power. The House is not so collegial and the majority party rules almost absolutely. Minority status offers very little legislative room in which to maneuver. This too may be too simplistic, as ideology can cross party lines. In the 1980's, for example, Republicans in the minority in the House were successful in gaining the support of a group of more conservative Democrats to move some legislative measures. Conservative Democrats (and Liberal Republicans) are not nearly as common today, however.
The most obvious impact of a change in party control of a chamber takes place on the floor in that the new Majority party now has the votes to pass their own measures (assuming they can hold together). In the House, they also control the Rules Committee, which dictates what and how legislation will be debated on the floor. The most significant change, however, lies not on the floor but in the committees. Whole committees are re-formed. A committee with 21 members, 12 Republicans and 9 Democrats, now is reversed. Committee staff levels change too. Some Republicans may have to find a new committee to sit on and there will defiantly be Republican staffers who will be looking for new jobs. A new Committee Chairperson will take charge of the committee, meaning they have control of hearing schedules, witnesses and the committee's agenda. This is a very significant shift in power in Washington, DC. Don't expect the committee assignments to be set by January 3rd however, as this process takes a long time, sometimes months.
The President, however, remains. His term in office continues until January 20, 2009. For his entire term, President Bush has had the luxury of having a Congress controlled by his own party. That is no longer the case for the new Congress. This seems traumatic to many media pundits, but is quite common. President Clinton had to deal with the same situation and even faced impeachment by the Republican House of Representatives. Presidents G.H.W. Bush, Reagan, Ford, Nixon and Eisenhower all had to deal with hostile Congresses. A minority party member in Congress can take solace in the fact that the President is from his/her party and any bill from Congress needs his approval, so there is some significant influence they can exert on the Majority.
In two years, a Presidential election will take place. Judging from the near exact split in the electorate between the parties, this transfer of power in Congress may become more common in the years ahead.