A few days before the November election, many political analysts argued that the opening moments of the 115th Congress could hold intrigue for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Ryan openly scrapped with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump during the campaign. Democrats were expected to pick up 12-18 House seats. A few Trump loyalists weren’t happy with Ryan. And then there was the often antagonistic conservative House Freedom Caucus, a band of conservatives who oppose just about everything propounded by the House GOP leadership.
Could Ryan win re-election to the speakership? There was talk of a bid by Freedom Caucus leader Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
But that drama won’t visit the Capitol today. Trump’s win sealed Ryan’s fate in the speaker’s race. A few Republicans will certainly defect. But not enough to deny him the speakership. That said, it’s worth watching how many Democrats splinter and vote for someone for speaker besides House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. After all, it was Pelosi who encountered an insurrection from Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, following the election.
To the uninitiated, the first day of each Congress resembles a caffeinated kindergarten under substitute teacher rule the day before summer vacation.
And then there are the kids lawmakers bring along for the big day.
New Members of Congress (and many lawmakers who are veterans) bring everyone to the Capitol. Their offspring. Grandchildren. The neighborhood nine-and-under soccer team. Kids maraud through the Capitol in de rigueur clip-on ties and dress shirts hanging out of their trousers. Like shibboleths, they clutch Rogue One X-Wing fighter toys just received for Christmas – even though the toys look as though they’ve already endured a shelling from an Imperial Star Destroyer. They’ll transform seats in the House chamber into playground equipment, vaulting over the chairs and playing hide-and-seek.
Amid the mayhem, there is work to do.
The first order of business is to pick a speaker. Ryan runs for the Republicans. Pelosi for the Democrats. Reading clerks then call the roll of the House alphabetically. The members rise and orally declare “Ryan,” or “Pelosi” (and sometimes wild card names, like Colin Powell). The House then tallies the votes.
Michigan voters first sent Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to Washington in 1964. He serves as dean of the House, the most-senior lawmaker in either body. Conyers will administer the oath of office to Ryan. In turn, Ryan will then swear-in the rest of the House.
The House should start at 435 members this year. But there’s a question about how long some of those members might stick around. President-elect Trump tapped a number of House members for Cabinet slots or other executive branch positions: Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., for Health and Human Services Secretary. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., for Interior Secretary. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., for CIA Director. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., for budget director. If the Senate confirms Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as attorney general, it’s possible that Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley could pluck one of the state’s GOP House members for the Senate slot. In turn, that opens up a House seat.
Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., will soon be out the door to become California’s attorney general – presuming that both bodies of the California assembly confirm him for that post.
In addition, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., is running to head the Democratic National Committee (DNC). That vote isn’t until February. But Ellison says he’ll quit the House to chair the DNC full-time if he wins.
In other words, the House may start at 435 members today. But it may just be a matter of weeks before its membership dips to 428 or fewer.
Unlike the Senate, the House has to set up its rules and provisions for operations. That’s the most-pressing issue of business for the House after the speaker vote. The most-controversial plan is to punish lawmakers for interfering with House business during protests and sidestepping internal House rules for audio and video coverage by live streaming events from the floor via social media.
This change stems from the Democrats’ guerilla sit-in on firearms in June. That’s where Democrats took over the well of the chamber, gave speeches and beamed it out to the world thanks to iPhones and iPads. House rules are generally vague about alternative video and audio recordings in the chamber. A rule setting parameters for television coverage mostly addresses use of the House’s own cameras. Under the rule, the House switches off those cameras when the House doesn’t meet. News organizations ranging from C-SPAN to CBS to Fox News can only use video generated from the official House feed. That’s why Democrats circumvented the rule and streamed their uprising on Facebook and YouTube.
House Republicans also prepped a plan Monday night to partially dismantle the quasi-official “Office of Congressional Ethics” or OCE. The GOP would rename the OCE the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and bar anonymous tips of alleged Congressional transgressions.
Republicans will inevitably vote yea and most Democrats nay on the rules package.
By mid-afternoon, Ryan will likely slather his hands with Purell in preparation to shake hands with several hundred people. The speaker must pose for an astonishing 230 separate photo shoots. This is where lawmakers and their families pose with the speaker as a part of a ceremonial swearing-in. The Library of Congress drops off multiple religious texts so lawmakers can place their left-hand on the sacred scripture of their choice. Catholic Bibles. Eastern Orthodox Bibles. The Book of Mormon. The Torah. The Koran. Buddhist Sutras. Hindu Vedas.
Inevitably, some of the kids on hand will melt down waiting in line. To calm their nerves, former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, used to kneel down and quack like a duck at the kids.
It’s unclear what tactics, if any, Paul Ryan may use Tuesday afternoon.