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Lungren Leaves Legacy as ‘Mayor of Capitol Hill’

Republican Rep. Dan Lungren may have lost his bid to be California’s governor in 1998, but for two years he got to be the mayor of another complex, diverse community: Capitol Hill.

The House Administration chairman’s tenure will end at the conclusion of the 112th Congress: After nine nail-biting days, his too-close-to-call election was called Thursday evening by the Associated Press for his Democratic challenger, Ami Bera, who lost to Lungren in 2010 but was able to break through this cycle in a district and election that favored Democrats. Lungren has not conceded the race.

Being ousted from office is always a bitter pill, but Lungren’s loss is perhaps more so given his unenviable task of leading New Member Orientation for the next freshman class — Bera among them — when he himself won’t join them in January for the 113th Congress. But Lungren will leave behind an important legacy when he departs next month as the chairman of the panel that oversees the operations of Congress.

The House Administration Committee, while it has high impact on the Capitol campus, doesn’t have much resonance among constituents back home, except for the portion of the panel’s docket dealing with election law.

In fact, Lungren might have at one point been looking for a leadership role with a wider reach of influence. He attempted to win the Republican Conference chairmanship in 2006 but came up short, and in 2008, he waged an unsuccessful, albeit largely symbolic, attempt to oust Ohio Republican John A. Boehner from serving another term as House minority leader.

Since taking the helm of the House Administration panel after serving as its ranking member in the 111th Congress, however, Lungren has ultimately played a very important role in his party’s leadership. He carved out a niche for himself as a chairman who took his party’s platform and applied it to how the House itself is managed, ensuring that the chamber led by example in the broader Republican campaign to cut spending.

“Throughout his tenure with the House Administration Committee, Dan has been a leader in the Committee’s efforts to ensure the smooth, efficient and cost-effective operation of the House,” now-Speaker Boehner said in his 2010 appointment of Lungren to the chairmanship. “In his new role as Chairman, Dan will continue providing the leadership and oversight needed to rein in the cost of operating Congress and save taxpayer dollars, consistent with the GOP’s Pledge to America.”

Many of Lungren’s first orders of business fell in line with dictates from Boehner and company, such as the mandate to cut congressional committee budgets first by 5 percent and the following year by 6.4 percent. At the helm of the panel responsible for making the allocations, Lungren worked with tight numbers to try to make sure everybody had what they needed under serious restrictions.

He was also expected to carry out the Republican promise to make the 112th Congress the most transparent in history. He did so by leading the committee in adopting new standards for posting bills, amendments and resolutions considered on the House floor on a new, centralized website.

But on many fronts, Lungren struck out on his own to hold the House accountable for fiscal discipline. By the end of his first month on the job, he had decided to end the $474,000-a-year composting program that had been a hallmark of the Democrats’ reign over the chamber from 2007 to 2011.

He pledged to find a cheaper alternative, and later that year he did, convincing the Senate to join forces with the House to burn Congress’ trash to generate energy rather than send it to a landfill.

In ending the composting program, however, he got his first taste of political backlash as a committee chairman. While House Democrats had reimbursed the chamber’s private food service vendor, Restaurant Associates, for buying compostable dishware and corn-based utensils for dining facilities, the new Republican majority said it would no longer front the cash. Instructed to buy the cheapest alternative, Restaurant Associates introduced dishware made from Styrofoam. Democrats were outraged, saying the material was environmentally unfriendly and posed health hazards.

“While some reforms to the House dining program may have been warranted as cost saving measures, replacing highly recyclable containers and cups with polystyrene products is not,” read a Democratic “Dear Colleague” letter. “The House should be a model institution setting an example for others to follow  . . .  the desire to save a few pennies should never come at the expense of jeopardizing staff, members and visitors’ health.”

And as chairman of the committee that authorizes contracts between the House and outside groups, Lungren also was been scrutinized for signing off on a $1.5 million contract for the House to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. The Justice Department announced in early 2011 that it would no longer argue in favor of the law prohibiting same-sex marriage, and House Republicans decided their chamber would do so instead.

Additional hallmarks of Lungren’s legacy might be shaped by his actions in the aftermath of the January 2011 near-fatal shooting of Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords during a constituent event in Tucson, which reminded all members about their own vulnerability — and their staff’s — on Capitol Hill and in their districts.

In addition to coordinating with the Capitol Hill law enforcement to ensure that precautions were being taken to protect lawmakers, Lungren signed off on letting them use their Members’ Representational Allowances for security upgrades to their district offices.

With House security always of concern to Lungren, he did away even before the Tucson shooting with the panel’s security subcommittee — the thought being that the issue was important enough to deserve the attention of all nine members of the full House Administration Committee rather than of just a select few.

And it was ultimately that concern that caused the man who pushed so hard for fiscal discipline on Capitol Hill to put the breaks on a proposal to cut deeper into the legislative branch.

When Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio offered up an amendment to the short-term spending bill for consideration on the House floor in February 2011 to slice $500 million off the budget for congressional operations, it was Lungren who led the campaign to vote against it.

“If adopted, this amendment would severely restrict the U.S. Capitol Police’s ability to secure the Capitol campus. A cut of this magnitude would force Capitol Police to face today’s ever-growing security threats with significantly fewer resources and officers,” he wrote in a letter to RSC members. “While I support this effort to reduce federal spending, I fear the wholesale approach in this amendment will render the House and its members incapable of upholding our promise to the American people.”

The amendment was ultimately defeated, 147-281, an outcome with which many colleagues were glad to give Lungren the credit.

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