Congressional Observer: December 2006

 - December 11, 2006, 6:14 AM

• Election Day results delivered a knockout blow to Republican hopes of retaining the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The first blow came as Democrats gained control of the House by the end of the day. Two days later, the last punch came as Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia, considered a shoo-in for reelection, conceded the election to Democrat James Webb, one time Secretary of the Navy. The election gave the Democrats 51 seats in the Senate.

President Bush was quick to respond to what he called an electoral “thumping” by replacing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, a former Central Intelligence Agency director. He had previously stated that he would keep Rumsfeld in the job in spite of numerous opposition demands that he resign or be fired.

President Bush then called a meeting of his Cabinet and outgoing Republican leaders to map out an agenda for the lame-duck Congress that would be in session from the middle of last month until year-end. Then the President brought Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the incoming House Speaker, to the White House for a meeting, from which they emerged with smiles and pledges of cooperation.

• In the aftermath of the elections, Republicans indulged in finger pointing to lay the blame for their losses. There was the Iraq war, President Bush’s loss of popularity, the ethics scandal that put Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) in jail for eight years, the resignation of the House seat held by Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio) following his guilty plea to conspiracy and false statements in his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the inappropriate conduct of Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) with male House pages.

• The Democrats will assume leadership positions and chairmanships of all Congressional committees in January. Current House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will give way to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who will become the first woman to be Speaker of the House and second in line for succession to the presidency. Pelosi restated her desire to accomplish five major goals–enactment of all the September 11 commission recommendations for fighting terrorism, raising the minimum wage by $2.10 per hour, cutting interest rates on student loans, repealing some subsidies for the oil industry and providing more funding for embryonic stem-cell research–in the first 100 hours of Democratic control.

• In the House, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who has long been associated with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will become the chairman. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) will chair the House Homeland Security Committee; Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) will take over the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee; and Rep David Obey (D-Wis.) will take the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

• In the Senate, Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will become the majority leader, replacing Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who did not run for re-election. Reid declared, “The days of the do-nothing Congress are over.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) will take the chair of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the longest serving member of the Senate, will do his third stint as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a fierce opponent of budget deficits, will chair the Budget Committee, and Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) will become chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

• Looking toward the future, government spending watchdog groups have been busily rounding up support for controls over earmarked or “pork” amendments to appropriations bills. In the last year, 15,777 earmarked amendments, most times entered anonymously and without request, that will cost taxpayers $47.2 billion were passed without contest.

Over the years, more and more legislators have jumped aboard the pork bandwagon as a way of showing voters that they can do good work for their constituencies. New constraints on lobbyists’ largess did not cause legislators any heartburn, and watchdogs want more bite in procedural reforms.