Welcome to 2023, a new Congress, and a new period of divided government in Washington thanks to a midterm election that delivered Republicans’ a slim majority in the House of Representatives but preserved the Democrats’ control of the Senate.
A Viewer’s Guide to the First Week
As required by the Constitution, the 118th Congress will convene at noon tomorrow, January 3, 2023. Here’s what to expect…
In the Senate…
The first day of a new Congress in the Senate is marked by ceremony and tradition. On Tuesday, the President of the Senate—U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris—will preside as the Senate swears in newly elected or re-elected Senators. That includes Alabama’s Katie Britt, the first woman elected to the Senate in the state’s history. Britt will be joined by six other new Senators from Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.
Party leaders will make welcoming remarks, and the Senate will move to adopt non-controversial orders that govern the day-to-day operations of the chamber. Unlike the House, the Senate is a continuing body that need not reauthorize its rules every two years—and therefore doesn’t open the can of worms of negotiating controversial rule changes on the first day. Photography is not allowed in the Senate, so newly elected senators and their families will move to the rarely used Old Senate Chamber just down the hall for a ceremonial swearing in. C-SPAN will cover it all, including an occasionally entertaining live feed of your nation’s leaders dealing with unruly children.
When Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance wraps up, the Senate is scheduled to recess until January 23.
In the House…
Incoming House Majority Leader Steve Scalise outlined the legislative agenda for the first two weeks. The plan includes establishing a select committee on China, prohibiting non-emergency drawdowns of the strategic petroleum reserve, and rescinding appropriations to the IRS for the hiring of additional staff. Those provisions and others will receive broad support, suggesting an effort to put early points on the board for the new majority.
But, before they get down to business, House members must elect a Speaker of the House, and, if Tuesday’s Senate action is predictable, proceedings in the House are anything but. We know this much: the House will be called to order by the Clerk at noon, the Chaplain will lead a prayer, and a quorum will be established. Then the House will move to elect a Speaker from among those nominated for the office. That happens by the Clerk calling the roll and, one by one, each Member of Congress standing to announce their vote.
The speaker vote is usually a coronation by the majority for the leader of their party. Not this time. The Capitol Hill publication “Roll Call” recently wrote that Tuesday may be the “most dramatic” Speaker vote in a century. Here’s why:
- There’s a lot at stake. In the modern House, power is increasingly centralized in a handful of members at the top. The Speaker controls the flow of legislation, the schedule, the political agenda for his or her party, and the strategy for dealing with the Senate and the White House. Rank-and-file members have limited input, but must live with the political consequences back home.
- There is history here. After John Boehner stepped down in 2015, then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy sought the speakership but eventually withdrew when he didn’t have the votes within the Republican Conference to win. McCarthy had badly hurt his own cause by publicly suggesting that the government-funded committee to investigate the attacks on a U.S. facility in Benghazi were really aimed at harming Hillary Clinton’s political standing. It was a bad look. McCarthy has essentially been preparing to run again for Speaker ever since. Raising money to help others is a tell-tale sign, and McCarthy has worked hard over the years to do just that. And he’s good at it: McCarthy reportedly raised an astonishing $500 million for Republican candidates in the run up to the 2022 midterms.
- There doesn’t seem to be a way forward—yet. When Washington is occasionally gripped by crisis, it’s usually pretty clear how leaders can sidestep the problem. That’s not the case here. To win, McCarthy needs 218 votes, assuming all are present. You can bet all Democrats will initially oppose McCarthy, leaving 222 Republican votes. The margin is slim, and a group of five “Never Kevin” Republicans have announced they will oppose McCarthy. They are Reps. Biggs of Arizona, Good of Virginia, Gaetz of Florida, Rosendale of Montana, and Norman of South Carolina. There is also an “Only Kevin” caucus, which will make compromise that much harder. The math doesn’t work out. Either a deal gets cut, someone eventually folds, or…
- It’s unlikely, but the situation could wind up empowering Democrats. If no one wins the Speaker election outright, the contest goes to additional ballots and the voting continues. A group of Democrats could eventually rally around a centrist Republican, leaving both McCarthy and the hardliner behind. Reminder: the Speaker does not have to be a sitting lawmaker.
- The institution itself could be impacted. Unlike the Senate, the House rules are in play, and McCarthy is making key concessions. On Sunday he released a proposed rules package that includes a compromise version of the Motion to Vacate that would make it easier for rank-and-file Members to dislodge him as Speaker. The proposed rules would also create a new select subcommittee on the “Weaponization of the Federal Government.” Separately, he pledged to put more conservatives on top committees. But the “Never Kevin” caucus didn’t seem impressed, and it’s far from certain that McCarthy’s efforts have won him the votes.
Official Washington will grind to halt on Tuesday to see how this plays out. The winner will have immense power, but also the responsibility to deal with big policy challenges and sometimes even bigger political headaches, including….
The Santos Situation
Assuming the Speaker election is resolved, a new class of incoming Representatives will be sworn in that includes George Santos, who just won election in New York after lying to voters about… a lot of things.
Specifically, the Representative-elect has admitted to falsifying his professional background, educational history, and property ownership, and he provided voters with less-than-forthright information regarding a past marriage, his religious beliefs (turns out he’s not Jewish but rather “Jew-ish”), possible criminal charges in Brazil, and his personal finances. Regardless, leaders have little ability to stop Santos from taking office. Whether Santos receives committee assignments appears to be an open question, and as soon as he is sworn in, he becomes subject to the ethics committee.
But one big issue appears to have caught the eye of federal investigators. In addition to a questionable string of expenditures that happen to be one penny less than the amount that triggers a requirement to keep receipts, Santos appears to have also given his campaign a $700,000 loan. Where did that cash come from?
Congressional approval is at about 25 percent. Once, over lunch, a now-retired House chairman told me, “The American People will take the House of Representatives seriously as soon as the House starts taking the House seriously.” The Santos affair would seem a good place to start.
- After nearly three years of COVID restrictions, the House galleries will be open to tourists, and visitors to House offices on official business will be allowed to enter the building and move between offices without a staff escort. Good news.
- Representative-elect Dale Strong has announced an impressive roster of staff hires for his Washington office, including Payne Griffin as Chief of Staff. Griffin most recently served as Deputy Legislative Director for U.S. Sen. Mike Braun from Indiana, worked in the Trump administration, and served with Sen. Jeff Sessions. Chandler Shields, who worked for Sens. Lindsey Graham and Richard Shelby, will serve as Deputy Chief of Staff. Ella Sullins, who served on Sen. Shelby’s legislative staff, will be Legislative Director. And Ashley Satterfield will join Strong’s team after serving as Senator Tuberville’s Military Legislative Assistant. All told, these hires indicate the start of a substantive and experienced office that will be well positioned to advance the issues important to the defense, tech, and agriculture heavy district.
- House Democrats released six years of Donald Trump’s tax returns. The complex documents may raise more questions than they answer, but it appears Trump paid little if any taxes for several years, gave little to charity, and received considerable income from business activity outside the U.S.
- The EPA finalized a new rule defining the “Waters of the United States,” making clearer which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. The WOTUS rule has been a hot topic for years. The new rule returns to the pre-Trump Administration definition, but takes into account a series of recent court rulings. The issue is closely watched by environmental, agricultural, and building & construction groups.
Stephen E. Boyd is a Partner at Horizons Global Solutions. Previously, he served as a Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, Chief of Staff for Alabama members in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and as a Communications Director of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He resides in the Washington, D.C. area. Opinions expressed herein are his own. This news report is not intended to influence or persuade. Email Stephen at [email protected].