The 116th Congress closes out its tenure

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Its sand is nearly out of the hourglass. Soon, the 116th Congress will be history, replaced by the 117th. Notwithstanding, but most of the 535 faces are returnees. There is a careful process that marks the congressional transition. With a review of the 116th and how it becomes the one 17th, Bloomberg Government editorial director, Loren Duggan joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Loren for once this week, we’ll just skip talking about this or that bill, because it’s all confused anyway. But let’s look back on the 116th Congress. So much to deal with, what’s your sense of the highlights of what we’ve have seen in the last couple of years?

Loren Duggan: Well, it’s certainly there’s a dividing line in about February and March of 2020 when COVID took over, because I think there’s the Congress that was in place before then, and Congress having to deal like everyone else in society, with this disease and what it meant for its operations and what it meant to its legislative agenda. If you want to look before COVID, I mean, we’re talking about things like impeachment, and we had a trial of the president in the Senate, which by any historical measure would be a unique thing in a Congress given that he was only the third president impeached, and the third president to have a trial. But since then, we’ve seen a Congress adjusting to the realities of a very contagious disease and the one that’s had major effects across all aspects of the economy and government.

Tom Temin: I guess, maybe to a less agile degree than the executive branch, but the Congress did manage to switch to some remote, they had a lot of remote hearings, they had the voting by proxy, at least now they’re considering the possibility of voting remotely by some electronic means, at least in the House. So I think that’s probably something that they should get a little credit for.

Loren Duggan: Yeah, they will I think, and it didn’t go as far as many members were pushing for. I think electronic voting was something that had advocates behind it. There were also concerns about the security of that, how do you prevent a member’s vote from being hijacked by someone in a foreign country, even domestically, who might want to mess with the system. But we have seen committee hearings, increasingly done in a hybrid fashion where you have some members in the committee room and others spread out around the country, and a mix of witnesses in house, but many at their offices wherever there might be around the country. The same with some of the committee proceedings where we had hybrid systems. There were major bills that are some of the biggest markups of the year, when we’re in person on Capitol Hill, those became virtual as well with members able to provide input, amend bills, have meaningful discussions about legislation. And then as you mentioned, on the floor, we’ve had a proxy voting system, which has primarily been used by Democratic members, but not exclusively. There’s been some Republicans who have used that as well, when they didn’t feel safe, traveling to Capitol Hill, or in some cases when they were themselves sick. That was all on the House side, the Senate did some hybrid stuff as well at the committee level, but the Senate maintained its tradition of in person roll call votes where everyone comes to the floor and gives a thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate how they feel. And when Charles Grassley, the senior Senator from Iowa, had COVID himself, it broke a multiple year voting streak because he was unable to come in person and do that. So some interesting things there.

Tom Temin: And they were unfortunately still not able to fix the situation of not being able to pass budgets, appropriations on time for the coincidence of the fiscal year start.

Loren Duggan: That’s right. That’s been a trend that’s continued for a long time. Obviously, they’ve passed a lot of money over the course of the year to respond to coronavirus. We had several packages at the beginning of the year, a lengthy six months discussion, debates and votes in both chambers over another package. And then we have this year and convergence of finally reaching agreement on a coronavirus package having a $1.4 trillion on the spending bill for the rest of the year ready to go. And then all the other things that go along with that, that process still seems to be awry. I mean that the House got all 12 of its bills through committee, 10 on the floor. The Senate didn’t make progress because things bogged down there. But will be interesting to see next year, first year in a long time without Budget Control Act spending caps influencing the debate. That will be an interesting transition as maybe we get back to budget resolution setting top line spending figures and having those larger debates about the overall budget and then see what we can do on the appropriations front with getting those 12 bills done every year.

Tom Temin: And in the House especially, do you sense that there’s about to be one of those generational shifts? And we’ve seen it before, we saw it in maybe 74 when the post Nixon, the post Watergate whole new face and feeling of Congress, because let’s face it, Nancy Pelosi is old, Steny Hoyer is old. And look at some cases it’s starting to show in some of them. What do you think is going to happen now that there’s going to be new leadership discussions shortly for, I guess, both the Democrats and Republicans?

Loren Duggan: That’s definitely going to be a theme over the next couple of years. Nancy Pelosi had at one point said she’d served for the 116th and 117th Congress as the top leader, and then perhaps move on. So you have her, you have Steny Hoyer and Jim Clapper who you mentioned all in their 80s, all respected figures, senior figures in the party, but there are people behind them who are going to probably have the opportunity to move up. What do they do over these next two years to lay the groundwork for that, some already have, there’s people in leadership positions who are of the next generation who will use those, and it’s, by the way, going to be a tough year for Democrats, they kept the majority, but it’s probably slim, to 122 members, some of whom are leaving to join the Biden administration. So they’re gonna have a tough go of it for a while, it’s gonna be an interesting dynamic to see what trade offs need to be made to secure if you need a majority, just within the Democratic Party to pass something, how you do the horse trading and the policy swaps you need to get that through? So that’s all going to be an interesting dynamic on that side.

Tom Temin: And tell us about some of the processes they go through to become a new Congress. There’s a lot of extra legal things they do — symposia, workshops, educational process and so on. What are some of those?

Loren Duggan: Well, some of that started already right after the election, they had new member orientation, which had a different look and feel because of the coronavirus, but they started teaching them how do you start a congressional office? How do you hire staff? How do you be a member, come to the floor, do things like at some point these members will start having to take their turn presiding over the House if you’re a Democrat in the House. And on the Senate side, there’s always somebody in the chair, the Vice President’s rarely there, so another Senator has to take their turn doing that. So they’re learning the ropes there on January 3, which is a Sunday, that’s when the House and Senate will convene and do the ceremonial stuff, elect to speaker, adopt rules in the House. In the Senate, you’ll see members get sworn in, sign the book to show that they’re there and then they’ll get going. So there’s always a learning curve, you’ll learn when to make your first speech, how to file a bill, how to introduce an amendment and go from there. So they’ve had some groundwork, but I guess you probably learn best by doing a lot of people will anyhow, and we’ll see some of that start as soon as the third.

Tom Temin: Do they already have their buttons so that they can get on the proper elevators in the Capitol building?

Loren Duggan: That I don’t know. But if they don’t, they’ll be getting them very soon and ready to go and learn all the the corridors of the Capitol, which there are so many.

Tom Temin: Yes. And the corridors of the congressional office buildings are where they actually work for the most part. And the great scramble for space, that’s something that probably no one from the outside looking in would want to go through, is it?

Loren Duggan: No. And there’s a lottery that happens pretty early in the process that would have happened last year. Sometimes it is an in person event, and there’s kind of a joyousness because you get a good number in the lottery and get to pick the office of your choice. If you get the last number, you get the worst office, that’s how it works. And every term you’re there, you have a chance to move up get better real estate, because there are very different offices on Capitol Hill. Some are better than others, some are closer to the floor than others. Some are the lower level of the building too. So that’s been a big scramble and people will be settling in there and getting used to their new digs even as many of their staffers may not be there because again of coronavirus and people working from home

Tom Temin: And the subways operating?

Loren Duggan: I have not been up there myself to see that but I’m pretty sure that those are still options. But I would assume that mask wearing and social distancing is part of the deal.

Tom Temin: Alright. Loren Duggan is editorial director of Bloomberg government. We’ll check in with you and the new Congress in the new year. Thanks so much for joining me.

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

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