‘Capitol Hill Mayor’ Lungren Fiercely Defends Institution on His Way Out
Rep. Dan Lungren has a framed photograph on the windowsill of the office he keeps as chairman of the House Administration Committee, located in Room 1313 of the Longworth Building. It shows him as a much younger man, seated at a desk in front of a window, flanked on either side by beaming parents.
The photo was taken in 1979, and it shows a 32-year-old Lungren in his very first congressional office: 1313 Longworth.
“It was a freshman office then,” the California Republican explained. “And now it’s the chairman’s office for this committee. It was taken right here.”
Lungren has come full circle as he prepares to end his congressional career in the same place it began. In a painfully close election that was among the last to be called this cycle, he barely lost to his Democratic challenger, Ami Bera.
He couldn’t have anticipated that his political journey would culminate in holding this office again. He also couldn’t have imagined he would in 2010 ascend to the chairmanship of the House Administration Committee and become the “mayor of Capitol Hill.”
“I didn’t get on the committee to become chairman,” Lungren said last week.
He did, though, ask to be a member of the panel that oversees the operations of Congress when, following a 16-year absence, he returned to Capitol Hill eight years ago.
Lungren first came to Washington in 1979 and left in 1989 for political opportunities in California. He served as state attorney general from 1991 to 1999. He lost a bid for the governor’s mansion in 1998 to Democrat Gray Davis. In 2004, in the aftermath of 9/11, he decided to run for Congress again, believing he had expertise to help protect the country, the Congress and its people. The House Administration Committee, with oversight over campus security, was a place to do that.
His committee assignment request was granted, though it wasn’t a tough fight. It isn’t among Congress’ most popular panels. It has a low profile and low-stakes docket compared with other committees, and while its work on behalf of the institution is important, it tends not to have much resonance back home.
These days, as congressional approval ratings sink and anti-Washington rhetoric persists, there’s even less incentive for members to advertise their work on the House Administration Committee.
“To the extent that you would say anything about it, it was not a help; it was a hindrance,” Lungren said. “People have this perverse notion that you shouldn’t be proud of the Capitol and proud of the service here, that you should apologize for spending the day here!”
Lungren gestured out the window at the Cannon House Office Building and shook his head.
“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.
In the meantime, like his office assignment, his short-term plans are also bringing him full circle.
“Every 24 years I leave Congress and Notre Dame wins the national championship,” Lungren said. “After I realized I lost, I went to the L.A. Coliseum, as I did in 1988, and watched Notre Dame beat [the University of Southern California]. Then, in 1988, I went to the Fiesta Bowl and watched Notre Dame win the national championship. Now I have travel arrangements to Miami for the Orange Bowl. I have everything but the tickets to the game!
“I don’t know if I have another 24 years left in me, but I intend to remain active on the issues about which I have a passion,” he continued. “And I will defend the House and the Congress. And maybe I can more freely do that now.”