Capuano says Dem transition is 'disjointed' and confusing

The lawmaker heading the day-to-day transition of House Democrats from minority to majority party says that process has become “disjointed” and that leaders need to do a better job communicating with each other.

But Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), whom Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tapped after the election to head that transition, also said the inevitable messiness of a new party taking over the House is just part of the democratic process.

“I’m trying to deal with the physical [office] space, the personnel issues, House rules, and some of the legislative changes that may be done, and trying to get a handle on coordination,” said Capuano in an interview with The Hill.

“A lot of people have their hands in it right now but the coordination isn’t where I would like it to be,” he said. “It’s disjointed.”

Capuano said that Pelosi and incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) are involved in the transition effort.

Part of the question that has arisen, he said, is figuring out exactly who’s in charge of various aspects of the transition. He said that he believes there does not need to be military-style delineations of responsibilities and argued against centralizing the effort in any one office.

“I just want to make sure that everyone is talking to everyone about what they’re doing,” he said. “It should be done in a coordinated manner.”

Emanuel took the lead on ethics reform last week when he sent a memo to colleagues emphasizing the importance of approving rules changes and legislation implementing ethics and lobbying reform.

“Failing to deliver on this promise would be devastating to our standing with the public, and certainly jeopardize some of our marginal seats,” wrote Emanuel. “The voters are looking to us for leadership, and it starts with real reform.”

But other than Emanuel, Democratic leaders have remained quiet on what changes to House and Democratic Caucus rules they are contemplating. House Democrats are divided over how far they should go in changing House ethics rules.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a close ally of Pelosi’s, caused a stir last month when he told a group of colleagues that he thought the Democratic lobbying reform package was “total crap.”

Hoyer and Clyburn, meanwhile, are taking prominent roles.

Stacey Bernards, Hoyer’s spokeswoman, said her boss was involved in all the transition issues, had met with Pelosi to discuss them last week, and plans to meet with her again this week.

Kristie Greco, Clyburn’s aide, said that the incoming whip is “working for an effective and efficient transition that’s driven by a tone of civility” as well as assembling “a staff and whip team that will be the most effective of any majority.”

The Democratic leaders have yet to make final decisions on any potential changes to the House rules and the Democratic Caucus rules.

“It’s all in the discussion stages,” said Capuano.

One of the most sensitive subjects is how much weight should be given to seniority when deciding who will serve as committee and subcommittee chairmen.

Capuano said that there has been confusion over the importance of seniority. He said there is a perception that seniority is virtually the sole factor in determining committee leadership and makeup, adding that has not been true for years.

“People have misread the caucus rules and thought seniority is absolute,” he said. “Not in 30 years has it been absolute. It is a factor.

“Seniority, the diversity of the caucus, and commitment to Democratic principles and agenda” are factors, he said, explaining that merit is the first factor listed in the expiring caucus rules but that it is not necessarily more important than seniority.

Pelosi and other leaders have laid out broad outlines of changes they would like to see made, but they still have to hammer out the crucial details. 

As far as the procedures of the House, Pelosi has called for bipartisan administration of the committees and for the legislative process to return to a “more regular democratic order.”

She has called for the elected Democratic and Republican leaders to consult regularly on scheduling and operation questions and for committee chairmen and ranking minority members to do the same. Pelosi has also proposed that the minority should control at least one-third of panel budgets and office space.

Pelosi also wants legislative changes to address complaints that she and her Democratic colleagues had of Republicans during their 12-year rule:

Bills should be written after full committee hearings and markups.

The minority party should be allowed to fully debate and offer alternatives to legislation receiving votes on the House floor.

Lawmakers should have at least 24 hours to examine bills and conference reports before voting on them.

Floor votes should be completed within 17 minutes and should not be held open to manipulate the outcome.

House and Senate conference committees should hold weekly meetings including all conference members.

Democrats complained in previous Congresses of the Republicans’ habit of limiting bicameral negotiations to House and Senate committee chairmen or a few additional appointed conferees.

Pelosi and Democratic leaders have also proposed a series of ethics reforms. They include banning gifts and travel, extending the time former lawmakers are not allowed to lobby former colleagues, and requiring lobbyists to disclose more information about their activities.

Capuano said that Democratic leaders agree that the House should have something akin to an office of public integrity to police improper behavior. Such an office is one of the most controversial elements of ethics reform. Senators voted overwhelmingly against it earlier this year.

But he said they must decide how it should be set up and “what their full responsibility would be.”