Most have never heard of Lorraine Miller. But for about two-and-a-half hours today, Miller will be one of the most-powerful people in Washington.
Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) is poised to wield the gavel as the 61st Speaker of the House later today.
But before Boehner seizes the gavel, Miller gets it first. She's the one who will call the House to order at precisely noon to launch the 112th Congress.
For the uninitiated, Miller is the Clerk of the House. A former aide to Speakers Tom Foley (D-WA) and Jim Wright (D-TX), departing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) appointed Miller to the position of Clerk four years ago.
The Clerk runs the daily operations in the House. And until the new Congress selects a new Speaker (and thus, the new Speaker officially taps a new Clerk), it's Miller's time as she presides over the House from the rostrum.
Today's theme may focus about installing Boehner as Speaker and shifting the House from Democratic to Republican control. But several things have to happen before Boehner takes up the Speaker's mantle.
Shortly after 12:00, Miller recognizes the certificates of election sent from the states, noting the 435 people they've dispatched to Washington. The House then conducts a "bed check" as the prospective 435 members vote electronically to demonstrate they're here.
At that point, the House has established its personnel for the 112th Congress. But it still lacks a leader. That's where Boehner and Pelosi come in as the House takes its first vote. You see, the House just doesn't anoint Boehner as Speaker because Republicans won. The House must officially elect a Speaker. So the Republicans run Boehner as their candidate and the Democrats will counter with Pelosi in a ballot on the House floor.
Boehner v. Pelosi has been the boxing card for the past two Congresses. But the outcome is expected to be a little different this time around.
Here's how the vote for Speaker works:
One by one, a House Reading Clerk alphabetically calls the names of all prospective House members. They're not officially lawmakers just yet. It kind of works like call and response in church. The Reading Clerk starts with Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY). Ackerman will rise from his seat and announce the last name of his selection for Speaker. The Reading Clerk will then read back the name of who Ackerman voted for. Then the Reading Clerk calls the name of Rep.-elect Sandy Adams (R-FL). Much like Ackerman, Adams will state her choice. And so on.
This vote for Speaker appears like a rote exercise. But historically, it's punctuated by some moments of levity. Or even partisanship.
For starters, the chamber is packed. Many lawmakers bring along their kids or grandkids to the House floor. In years past, some kids play with Matchbox cars on the floor, oblivious to the importance of the proceedings. A baby or two will wail. Inevitably, someone's cell phone will ring, filling the chamber with electronically-generated bars of Beethoven's "Fur Elise."
One light moment came in January, 1995 as the House prepared to switch from Democratic to Republican control for the first time in more than 40 years. Back then, the GOP was about to elect Newt Gingrich Speaker in a contest against former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO). The Reading Clerk called Ackerman's name first. Ackerman voted for Gephardt. Then came then-Rep. and current Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D). Of course Abercrombie voted for Gephardt.
Someone in the back of the chamber then hollered "I move to close the vote."
The chamber erupted in laughter.
In 2007, some House Democrats razzed former-Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) with a Bronx cheer as he voted for Pelosi as Speaker. When Republicans were in control, Taylor didn't back Pelosi and instead cast his votes for the late-Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA). But that changed when Democrats won the House in the 2006 midterm election.
Meantime, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) lobbed catcalls at Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) when he voted for Pelosi in his first term in 2007.
Barring anything extraordinary, Boehner is expected to secure all Republican votes and win the Speakership. But no one anticipates Pelosi to run the table for the Democrats this time. Especially among moderate and conservative Democrats.
Shuler challenged Pelosi in November for her new post as Minority Leader. Shuler lost. But the former Washington Redskins quarterback plans to call an audible and vote for himself today over Pelosi. Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK) says he will vote for Shuler. Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA) wouldn't say who he supports. But Altmire told FOX it wouldn't be Pelosi.
House sources speculate there could be as many as 20 defections from Pelosi during this vote. Expect a few votes for incoming House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), the longest-serving member in House history.
Once the votes are tallied, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood will announce the new Speaker (presumably Boehner) and escort him to the dais. At that point, Pelosi will present Boehner to the House and hand him the gavel.
In his role as Dean of the House, Dingell then administers the oath to Boehner. After that Boehner swears-in all members, en masse.
You know that picture or video you always see on the news of your Congressman or woman, placing their hand on the Bible and raising their right hand as they stand next to the House Speaker? That's all fake. It's engineered just for the cameras. In fact, as soon as Boehner becomes Speaker, his first official duty is to hustle over to the Rayburn Room across from the House chamber to orchestrate the staged swearing-ins.
So far 186 Republicans and 75 Democrats have signed up for this bit of political theatre. It's kind of like waiting in line at the mall to have your picture taken with Santa Claus. The lawmakers and their families will wait in a hall and then cycle through for the photo op.
One distinguishing characteristic of the mock swearing-in is the diversity of Bibles that lawmakers bring for the picture. Many select family Bibles or ones belonging to their home church. But in 2007, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) didn't bring a Bible. Instead, Ellison brought something else: the Alcoran of Mohammed, better known as the Koran.
That year, Ellison became the first Muslim to join the House. And his decision to pose with the Koran set off former-Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA).
In a newsletter, Goode wrote that he did "not subscribe to using the Koran in any way." Goode added that "the Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office demanding the use of the Koran."
For his swearing-in photo, Ellison secured a Koran that belonged to the Library of Congress. It was once in the private book collection of Thomas Jefferson.
A bit of irony: at the time, Goode represented Jefferson's home of Monticello and the University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson.
Opening day in Congress is reminiscent of opening day in baseball or football. The atmosphere is festive. Kids run everywhere. Many Congressional offices conduct open houses and serve snacks for guests. Each offers a local flair, indicative of the district the lawmaker represents.
Such will be the case with John Boehner.
During her time as Speaker, Nancy Pelosi often spoke about her love for the San Francisco Giants and served San Francisco-based Ghirardelli chocolate at events.
Nothing against Ghirardelli, but its stock on Capitol Hill is on the decline. And you can tell who's the new Speaker just by the bill of fare. A fete for Boehner supporters features the three food groups of the Greater Cincinnati diet: Montgomery Inn ribs, Skyline Chili and Graeter's ice cream.