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'Capitol Hill Mayor' Lungren Fiercely Defends Institution on His Way Out

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

“It’s falling apart. There are parts of the ceiling that are falling down that could kill people  . . .  And now what do I do? I turn on the TV here last week and a local television station is complaining about the fact that we’re going to have to spend half a million dollars to fix it.

“This is the Capitol of the United States,” Lungren continued. “Why are we embarrassed about it? It is one of the symbols of the nation. I’m not embarrassed about it. Somebody has to have the guts to stand up  . . .  and I am happy to do that because I love this place.”

That love took root at an early age. His father was a friend of, and later physician for, President Richard M. Nixon, and Lungren would get to visit the Capitol on family trips to Washington.

“It was more exciting than going to the World Series,” he said.

His dedication to the institution was what earned him increased responsibility on the committee, first as ranking member in the 111th Congress and then as chairman when Republicans retook control of the House in 2010.

At the helm, Lungren advanced his party’s goals of fostering transparency for the public seeking insight into the legislative process. He oversaw budget allocations for congressional committees using the lowest top-line numbers in institutional memory, helping the chamber “lead by example” in practicing fiscal discipline. At the same time, he fended off amendments on the House floor that sought dramatic cuts to Capitol Police funding.

He helped make the committee responsive to the people, ensuring that a traditionally staff-driven panel had lawmakers at the forefront: “They do tremendous jobs, but they are not the ones who get elected. This is the U.S. House of Representatives, not the U.S. House of Staff.”

And, like any good mayor, he listened to his Capitol Hill constituency. One member of Congress asked Lungren to remove the “bird crap” from his window. At the start of the 112th Congress, dozens of staffers complained about the House cafeterias’ corn-based utensils that melted upon contact with hot liquid.

Lungren heard their cries, though in taking action on the latter issue he had his first taste of political backlash as committee chairman. He swapped out the compostable cutlery with Styrofoam cups and bowls, saving the House money while also angering environmentalists who nicknamed him “Styrofoam Dan.”

He pledged to lighten the chamber’s carbon footprint more cheaply, and he made good on that promise. In September 2011 he led an initiative to divert all of Congress’ trash from landfills to be burned into renewable energy, which even some critics applauded. It didn’t, however, erase the Styrofoam incident from memory.

“Don’t even get me started,” he said.

Blindsided by his defeat, Lungren still hasn’t nailed down his post-Congress plans. He might pursue some line of work that incorporates his top legislative interests, which include cyber-security, immigration and religious liberty.

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