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Early Organization of New Congress Has Roots in Reform Era

When Members return to town next week, there could actually be two Congresses at work simultaneously. Party leaders may call the 110th Congress back for a lame-duck session to take up an economic stimulus package. At the same time, House and Senate Members-elect of the 111th Congress are convening for “early organization” caucuses — mainly for party leadership elections and freshman orientation.

[IMGCAP(1)]The idea of holding early organizational meetings took root during the Congressional reform wave of the 1970s. One of the main complaints then was that new Congresses took far too long to get organized. That meant little work was done in the early months of a session, leaving a huge backlog of legislation to be completed at the end.

Among other things, Congress had difficulty enacting any of its regular appropriations bills on time (sound familiar?). The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 remedied that in part by moving the start of the fiscal year from July 1 to Oct. 1. A 1973 bipartisan House Select Committee on Committee Reform, chaired by then-Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), provided a complementary solution by recommending that the party caucuses meet before a new Congress convenes for leadership elections and making committee assignments.

As adopted in October 1974, the “committee reform amendments” authorized the House Majority or Minority leaders, after consulting with the Speaker, to schedule a post-election conference in November or December for the purpose of “taking all steps necessary to achieve the prompt organization of the Members and Members-elect of such party for the ensuing Congress.” (The Senate followed suit shortly thereafter.)

The select committee’s report credited the idea to Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) and Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-Mich.), who both testified that an advance transition period for electing party leaders and recommending committee assignments would enable committees to begin their legislative work almost immediately.

The expectation of completing all committee assignment recommendations during early organization week was probably overly optimistic. Parties must first elect their leaders and others who serve on the committee selection panels. The selection committees must then review all the committee assignment “preferences” submitted by Members to determine the best fits and balance of Members for open committee slots. Those recommendations must then be put before the caucuses for a vote. Such a process can sometimes take several weeks if there are a large number of openings to fill and a sizable freshman class.

Nevertheless, early organization caucuses have worked well over the years in getting the leadership and its party committees chosen and operational well before opening day. It is not unusual nowadays for the caucuses to call up resolutions in the House on opening day to elect Members to the key committees (Rules, Appropriations and Ways and Means) and then to elect the membership of the other committees over the next week or so.

Ironically, even though new Congresses have been able to elect their committees sooner as a result of the early organization caucuses, Congress did not shake the habit of then recessing for the better part of January. This defeated one of the main aims of early organization, which was to enable committees to organize and begin their legislative work. The recesses were nevertheless popular because they gave new Members time to find housing in Washington, hire staff, take part in out-of-town freshman policy retreats and even attend Super Bowl fundraisers.

At the beginning of the 110th Congress in 2007, the House did not recess during January so the new Democratic majority could process its “Six for ’06” legislative agenda in the first 100 legislative hours as promised. Unfortunately, the rush to passage did not allow time for consideration by committees (nor were any floor amendments allowed). The House stayed in session for the remainder of January and into mid-February before taking its first weeklong recess over Presidents Day.

It is too soon to predict what legislation will receive priority attention in the 111th Congress. A great deal of consultation and coordination will have to take place between President-elect Obama and party leaders in Congress to make sure everyone is singing from the same page (or at least from the same hymnal).

The tentative decision of majority Democrats to take another crack at a stimulus bill next week, instead of waiting for the new administration on Jan. 20, is a clear sign that the leadership considers this to be an urgent matter. But it is also an early signal to the new president that the Democratic Congress can still set its own agenda and will not always be dependent on the White House for direction.

Other Democratic Congresses in similar situations have flexed their muscles early with presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — often with mixed results. Obama’s experience as a Senator should help him avoid some of the early mistakes committed by presidents who were new to Washington’s ways.

The real test will come when the president unveils his economic and budget proposals, which will likely disappoint some Democrats who have more ambitious ideas. The ability of party leaders and the president to resolve such differences amicably could set the tone for the remainder of the session. Next week’s early organizational caucuses should afford the new president an opportunity to get off on the right foot with both parties in Congress.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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