Opening day of new Congress: Not always total joy

Stefani Reynolds

Ask any senior member of Congress what the highlight of their Hill career has been and many will tell you it was being sworn-in by the Speaker on the opening day of their first Congress. Not that’s it’s been all downhill since, but it’s hard to match the pride one feels, surrounded by family and supporters, of becoming a member of the world’s greatest legislative body.

Historically, not all opening days of a new Congress have been seamless odes to joy. Several have entailed multiple ballots to elect a Speaker, partisan fights over rule changes, or heated disputes over contested election cases (spoiler alert: the majority party usually wins). Such opening day clashes can poison the well for months.

{mosads}In my book, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays,” I recount the happiness, energy and enthusiasm on display in the House chamber when Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was sworn-in as the first woman Speaker on Jan. 4, 2007. Pelosi bested her Republican opponent for Speaker, Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), on a predictable party-line vote of 233 to 202.

After delivering her acceptance speech, she invited children in the chamber, including her own grandchildren, to join her on the dais as she took the oath of office administered by the dean of the House, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich). Over three dozen children swarmed the podium and took turns touching the gavel. Pelosi then swore-in the members of the 110th Congress en masse. With that, the extra TV lights in the chamber were doused and the House proceeded with the more mundane chores of electing other House officers and then taking-up the Democrats’ resolution for adopting House rules for the new Congress.

Next year, when Pelosi vies for her third term as Speaker on Jan. 3, elevation will not be as effortless. Whereas in 2007 her caucus nominated her by unanimous vote, this year 32 Democrats voted against her nomination while 203 voted for her. Assuming all House members vote for someone, she will need 218 floor votes to win.

If she is not able to nail down another 15 votes using promises and persuasion, Pelosi and her lieutenants are urging the remaining dissidents to vote “present.” Those votes would not count toward determining a majority. For instance, if 35 members vote “present,” that lowers the threshold for victory from 218 votes to 201 votes since only 400 members will have voted for someone. If Pelosi comes up short on the first ballot, there will be additional ballots until a majority of those voting elect her or someone else. If Pelosi is not able to persuade sufficient members to vote present, it is not clear what it will take. The anti-Pelosi forces have no specific House reform proposals to leverage as bargaining chips, nor are they pushing any viable, alternative candidate. Their sole mantra seems to be, “New Leadership.”

Pelosi may end-up taking a page from the 1923 Speaker’s election when a group of progressive Republicans refused to support their party’s nominee for Speaker, Rep. Frederick H. Gillett of Massachusetts, voting instead for two other candidates. After eight ballots spanning two days, Majority Leader Nicholas Longworth of Ohio brokered a compromise: one of the progressives would be added to the Rules Committee roster, and the committee was directed to hold hearings and report back any proposed House rules changes in 32 days. In the interim, the House adopted the rules of the previous Congress and elected Gillett as Speaker. The compromise succeeded and several significant rules changes were adopted.

However, in the following Congress, with a much larger Republican contingent and Longworth as Speaker, the GOP majority expelled 12 members from the caucus and stripped them of their committee seniority for supporting the Progressive Party’s 1924 presidential candidate. Moreover, a major rule change they championed in the previous Congress, liberalizing the discharge petition process, was reversed.

Pelosi already supports creation a House select committee on improving the operations of Congress. It could easily be required to report back its recommendations by a date certain, as was done in 1924. But it’s not clear that any rules changes will mollify the outliers short of one imposing a one-year term limit on the Speaker.

The progressives enjoyed a brief and heady taste of power in 1924, but by the next Congress they learned that a pivotal minority can quickly become a sapless twig. This year’s Democratic insurgents should consider just what kind of future they want in the House and how they intend to attain it. The thrill of an attempted coup leaves few laurels to rest on.

Don Wolfensberger, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, is author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays,” and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. The views expressed are solely his own.

Tags Boehner John Boehner John Dingell Nancy Pelosi Speakership

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