If freshman week back in November was the Hill’s equivalent of college orientation, then the formal convening of each Congress is the Capitol’s analogue to the first day of school.
And so it may be useful, for the congressional community as well as the throngs of well-wishers in town just for the festivities, to be reminded of some of the curious ways in which the customs of this day are different from all the others. Just as every kid has the potential to be an A student until classes begin, and every team gets to harbor hopes of a championship season until the first game is played, each senator and representative has the same theoretical shot at legislative and political success at the start of January in every odd-numbered year. The quantifiable sorting really doesn’t get started until the new Congress is at least a few hours old, once the formalities have locked in place the partisan balance of power.
On Tuesday, the somewhat suspenseful call of the roll in the House that elects John A. Boehner to a third term as speaker, and Mitch McConnell’s initial response to the cue “the majority leader is recognized,” will affirm the reality that Republicans are in charge of the entire Capitol for the first time in eight years. They’ve promised to assert their new policymaking superiority almost immediately.
Just as the rhythms for the first day of a new academic year are unique, the opening ceremonies beginning at noon will feature some people who are out of the congressional spotlight on almost every other occasion, and some procedures that probably won’t be used again until January 2017.
Because the House of Representatives, as a parliamentary matter, essentially ceased to exist at noon on Saturday, when all 435 members of the 113th Congress left office, the responsibilities of calling the new House to order, establishing that a quorum of members-elect have shown up (a constitutional requirement before business may begin) and conducting the speaker’s election all fall to the Clerk of the House. Since 2011, the person in charge of floor operations has been Karen L. Haas, who has adhered to the staffer’s code of shunning publicity during nearly three decades as a fixture in the ranks of senior GOP leadership aides.
By longstanding custom, the just-elected speaker is the first House member to take office, and the oath is administered by the returning member (from either party) with the most seniority. With the retirement of John D. Dingell, the House will have a new “dean” for the first time in 20 years : 85-year-old John Conyers Jr., another Michigan Democrat, who is beginning his 26th term but has faded into the distant background behind the Democratic power players in recent years despite hanging in as the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member.
In the Senate, the undisputed star of the show will be someone with almost universal name recognition but a purposefully small footprint recently at the Capitol: Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has only been to the Capitol twice since Labor Day, but he’s back as master of ceremonies because the Constitution says he’s also the almost always powerless president of the Senate.
He’ll be in the chair to recognize McConnell as majority leader and conduct the swearing in of 13 new and 21 re-elected senators. But only then will his potential to create another You Tube sensation arrive. Biden will repair to the Old Senate Chamber and stage oath-taking ceremonies with the senators and their families in front of a clutch of TV and still cameras. If past practice holds, he’ll generate a long highlight reel by flirting with the members’ mothers, daughters and granddaughters — while offering such oddball quips as the one directed two years ago at a totally bewildered Darwin Lange, the husband of North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp: “Spread your legs, you’re gonna be frisked.”
Because two-thirds of the senators are holdovers from one Congress to the next, the Senate views itself as a “continuing body,” meaning that unlike the House it does not formally reconstitute itself every two years. And since the floor leaders, whose jobs are 20th century inventions, have already been chosen by their caucuses, there is no formal leadership election on opening day.
Instead, the most unusual procedural ritual is how the senators starting new terms line up alphabetically and come down the center aisle in groups of four, each customarily escorted by their predecessor or their state’s other senator. (Ten of the 13 freshmen will be paired in their two-person delegation with someone from the same party.) After taking the oath (identical to the one used for all senior federal officials except the president) they are directed to a registry that’s been used since the Civil War to log the signatures of each senator being sworn in. (They get to keep the pens.)
The vibe in the House is considerably less formal but none the less antiquated. Custom holds that members may bring their non-adult children onto the floor during the day, and the rules about quiet in the visitor galleries are relaxed so that friends from home can hoot their approval when sighting their favorite newly minted member.
The result is a room overstuffed with an increasingly loud and unwieldy collection of partying constituents, glad-handing politicians and their kids, whose wide-eyed excitement in their Sunday best inevitably gives way to a collective and fidgety boredom.
The reason they’re stuck in the chamber until mid-afternoon is that none of the members want to miss either their own swearing-in — or their five seconds of participation in the procedure beforehand. The election of the speaker is the only time every two years when the House votes with a clerk calling the roll alphabetically, after instructing the members-elect to “indicate by surname the nominee of their choosing.”
With nine Republicans voting for someone other than Boehner, the Ohio Republican secured his second term in the House’s top job with just six votes to spare in 2013. That level of discontent isn’t at all likely to be repeated this time (An absolute majority is required, meaning 28 from the GOP would need to spurn Boehner to depose him now.) And so some of the drama may be focused on whether any freshmen miss their moment when attendance is taken.
By coincidence, the first two and last two lawmakers whose names will be called are participating in the ritual for the first time. So a fair warning is due to Republicans Ralph Abraham of Louisiana, Lee Zeldin of New York, Ryan Zinke of Montana and Democrat Alma Adams of North Carolina: On this unique day of your new careers, the eyes of the nation will be watching. After that, first-year obscurity may well be your lot.
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