Capitol Attitude

The breakneck pace ahead for Congress

Reaction from the 'Special Report' All-Star panel

 

So 2017 is probably going to be a lot like 1995 on Capitol Hill.

Republicans in the House and Senate are practically exuberant that they now have control of both bodies of Congress and President-elect Trump coming into the White House. They have a chance to legislate and promulgate GOP and conservative policies which registered merely as “messaging bills” under President Obama.

The election of Trump grants Republicans agency to truly legislate. Many Republicans in Congress have never served under a GOP President. Eight years of a Democratic administration wore them down. Some grew tired of always working “against” something rather than striving “for” something.

Some Congressional Republicans grew disheartened. Uninspired. Exasperated. More years of investigations and inquiries awaited them in what many anticipated was the incoming Clinton Administration. So some Republicans turned on themselves. They went after former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Chatter began that maybe House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., wasn’t good enough, either. Maybe Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.,was the problem – so say nothing of all of those weird Senate rules.

And now, Republicans hit the jackpot. Or at least think they have. They’re anxious to get started. Energized. Confident. And expectations from the public are off the chart.

What is past is prologue.

Republicans seized control of both the House and Senate in the fabled 1994 midterm elections. Republicans lost the Senate in 1986. So it had only been eight years in the wilderness there. But the House was another enterprise altogether. Republicans wandered aimlessly in the minority for 42 years in the House of Representatives. So entrenched were the Democrats in the House, many observers believed the party may have marshaled a “permanent majority.” In fact, Democrats ran the House for all but four of the previous 62 years.

That was until Republicans captured an astonishing 54 seats in 1994 and flipped the House to GOP control. They beat then-House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., christened the incoming freshmen “majority makers” and was determined to show the public how the GOP could run the House better. Gingrich planned to advance his 10-point “Contract with America” through the House during the first hundred days. Gingrich encouraged the public to watch Congressional proceedings on C-SPAN. And in a maneuver which would appear practically archaic today, Republicans took out an ad in TV Guide which listed the ten Contract with America points. Gingrich hoped voters would follow along at home and then check off each item as they advanced through the House.

The parameters of the opportunity ahead for Congressional Republicans now are different compared to 1994. But much like GOPers 22 years ago, this crowd is ready to legislate, buoyed by the opportunity to work with the Trump Administration. Their parliamentary muscles atrophied over the past few years. So Republicans are marking an ambitious agenda which features the prospective repeal and replacement of Obamacare, a new tax structure, a robust infrastructure program, a crackdown on the Obama Administration’s immigration policy and a planned rollback of various executive branch rules.

The House and Senate conducted a minimalist schedule over the past few years. McConnell promised full work weeks when the GOP earned control of the Senate two years ago. But the Senate rarely met for a full five days. The House adhered mostly to the classic four-day schedule. But recesses were long. Both bodies skipped town from mid-July until almost mid-September this year. Lawmakers gave back days which leaders scheduled for legislative work. The compact schedule produced harried lawmakers and aides as everyone maximized their time in Washington. GOP leaders defended the skeletal approach. They argued it was important for lawmakers to escape the Beltway and be in touch with their constituents.

Now those sentiments are out the window. Republican lawmakers will want to be in Washington. Five-day weeks (or more) are expected in both chambers. Trump and Republicans have to have something to show the public…and soon. They’ll need to make a point or voters may presume President-elect Trump and Republicans sold them a bag of goods.

You think the public is apoplectic now?

Expect a breakneck pace on Capitol Hill in 2017. It might be an approach not seen since 1995.

The first 100 days of 1995 were an exhaustive slog for House Republicans. Things were tough in the Senate, too. But much of the onus fell on the House and Gingrich.

Long days. Long nights. Epic floor fights with the Democrats. Barbs on the floor. Contentious press conferences with Gingrich. It was a wild, wild time.

“It’s not the 100 days that are killing us,” said the late-Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., at the time. “It’s the 100 nights.

Legislative sessions often started promptly at 9 am (or earlier in some instances) and bled well into the night with few respites. Fourteen and 15 hour days were the norm. Republicans logged an astonishing 486 hours in session over the first 100 days compared to a meager 189 hours over the same time period in the previous Congress. The House conducted 252 roll call votes by mid-March. Lawmakers voted a scant 73 times two years prior.

Republicans found themselves exhilarated at the opportunity to legislate and flex their policy bona fides. But there was a cost. A big one.

Everyone was tired. Sleep deprived. Fuses were short. Lawmakers snapped at each other, aides and journalists. They devoured takeout constantly from Armand’s Chicago Pizzeria and the recently-burned Hunan Dynasty on Capitol Hill. The House even ordered several of the Capitol’s cafeterias to remain open into the evening to serve famished lawmakers and staff. Waistlines expanded. Some shrank from the stress.

Lawmakers dozed on the floor during debates and caught catnaps in their offices. Even one of the barbers in the House barber shop remarked how the anxiety was palpable.

“Right now people are more uptight than any time I’ve been here,” said veteran House barber Nurney Mason to The Wall Street Journal. “They’re always in such a rush to get out. No time for a blow dry.”

People fell sick thanks to the grueling, frantic pace. Lawmakers trafficked the Capitol passageway leading to the Office of the Attending Physician as heavily as the corridors leading to the House floor. Dozens of lawmakers came down with some weird bronchial crud. They promptly passed it around to everyone else because no one ever left the building and many lawmakers slept in their offices and showered in the House gym.

But Gingrich tried to keep his troops in line and maintain esprit de corps. He often psyched up his members, suggesting they were “revolutionaries” and that this was an appointment with history.

It’s unclear if Republicans now in the House and Senate view themselves as having an appointment with history in the 115th Congress which starts in January. But they do think they have the chance to get some big things done. And appointment with history or not, it appears they’re willing to endure a long slog over the next few months – even if that also means an appointment with the Office of the Attending Physician.