Out With The Old Congress, In with the New
Having potentially overridden President Donald Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (the House did so last night; the Senate is likely to follow suit in the days ahead), and with President Trump signing the COVID relief and omnibus spending bill into law on Sunday evening – five days after releasing a video in which he threatened to pocket veto the bill – the 116th Congress is now almost officially in the books. As one of its last votes, the Democratic-led House of Representatives voted 275 to 134 last night to increase the maximum individual COVID relief payment under the just-signed deal from $600 to $2,000. The GOP-led Senate appears unlikely to take up the legislation as of this writing, but given the unpredictable and dramatic turn of events in Washington over the last week, that could certainly change.
Since we’re nearly ready to close the books on the 116th Congress, let’s get to know the members of the 117th.
First, let’s look at the balance of power in the two houses of Congress.
As readers certainly know, with two Senate run-off races set for January 5 in Georgia, control of the U.S. Senate still is up for grabs. Currently, Republicans control 50 seats and Democrats hold 48. If Democrats win both Georgia races, their party will control the Senate starting at noon on January 20, when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is sworn in as vice president and will have the constitutional authority to cast tie-breaking votes.
If Democrats only win one of those seats, they will hold 49 seats to Republicans’ 51 – meaning Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will retain his position, and, along with it, the ability to decide what legislation and executive appointment votes make it to the Senate floor.
According to the data analytics website FiveThirtyEight, the two Georgia races are very close – Democrats led in both cases by less than half a percentage point before President Trump’s delay in signing the COVID relief bill into law. (Polling data subsequent to the bill becoming law has not yet been released.) Regardless of the outcome, there is one thing we know based on the time it took to count the votes in November: it is likely that we will not know the outcomes of these contests on January 5. And since the results will not only determine who are the leaders of the Senate, but also who leads each committee and the makeup of each panel, all eyes will be on the Peach State as election officials count, and likely recount, the ballots.
In the U.S. House, according to CNN, 433 of the 435 races have been called. At this moment, Democrats hold 222 of those seats and Republicans hold 211. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) will still be Speaker of the House, but the edge her party has in that chamber will be much narrower – in fact, according to Pew Research Center, it will be almost the smallest House majority in six decades. The Democrats’ majority in the House is so small, in fact, that Pelosi and her leadership team are reportedly concerned that exposure to COVID by just a few incoming Democratic members of the House over the Christmas holiday – which would prevent them from traveling to Washington next week – could threaten her ability to secure the 218 votes required to be elected Speaker once again when the new Congress convenes on Sunday.
But even beyond that pivotal vote on January 3, Speaker Pelosi and Democratic House leaders are about to face a difficult two years. With potentially as few as four votes to spare on any floor vote, Speaker Pelosi will have to work very hard to keep her caucus together if Democrats want to be able to advance President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda in the House. The defection of just a handful of lawmakers – i.e., votes – will spell defeat.
Can she do it?
The Washington, D.C.-based newspaper The Hill says yes. According to its analysis, “Of the nine highest-profile bills passed by Democrats — but not taken up by the Senate — over the past two years” – in other words, the most partisan, controversial pieces of legislation, “seven won unanimous Democratic support, despite the differences in the caucus between the liberal and moderate wings.” H.R. 1, for example, which was “designed to limit the influence of money in politics, knock down barriers to voting and adopt tougher ethics rules for Washington policymakers” passed with unanimous Democratic support.
House Democrats also passed an infrastructure package, a bill to limit pharmaceutical drug prices, and legislation to provide protections to young immigrants either unanimously or without losing more than two Democratic votes. Each of these bills is likely to be brought up once again in the new Congress.
Earlier this month, Speaker Pelosi tried to put aside reporters’ questions about her narrow majority. According to CNN, she said, “Here's what you should do. Go look at the 106th and the 107th Congress ... there is similar numbers to now … I don't remember anybody ... ever saying, ‘Oh how slim is your majority.’ They had the gavel, they had the majority.” (As Pew noted, during those Congresses, Republicans made up just over half (51%) of the chamber, holding 223 and 220 seats, respectively, during those Congresses.)
In addition to narrow majorities, there will be a lot of new faces in Congress next year. The Senate will have at least six new members and the House will have 60 lawmakers serving for the first time (45 Republicans and 15 Democrats). Leaders in both parties currently are contemplating exactly how they get these individuals sworn in, given the rapidly increasing COVID-19 case numbers and concerns some lawmakers have about travel.
As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) explained to Roll Call in a November 23 article, “The issue [of virtual swearing-ins] was raised before, and the parliamentarian ruled you had to be there. He ruled essentially you couldn’t be sworn through television … So I don’t know exactly how we’re going to do it for people who are unable to come.” (For his part, President-elect Biden is planning for his inauguration festivities to be 80 percent virtual. He still plans to take the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, however.)
Once it is sworn in, what will the 117th Congress look like?
First, as The Hill noted, it “will be the most diverse group of lawmakers ever to chart the nation’s course.” The Brookings Institution, the advocacy campaign firm Phone2Action, and other sources have offered some interesting stats on the demographics of the 117th Congress. Interesting data include:
- Congress will be younger next year, but not by much. The average age will be 59, down from 60 this Congress. Senators are, on average, older than members of the House. In fact, according to The Hill, the youngest member of the Senate is just under 50.
- More than one-fourth of Congress will be women – there will be 141 females in Congress starting in January versus 126 in the 116th Congress. According to Roll Call, the ranks of Republican women actually will double between the 116th and 117th Congresses since “a woman won in almost every district that Republicans flipped.”
- Breaking it down by generation, The Hill noted that 31 millennials will serve in Congress beginning in January. There will be 160 members of Generation X, 296 baby boomers, and 39 members of the silent generation.
- Black lawmakers will make up 12 percent of the House, up from 11 percent in the 116th Congress. Hispanic members will make up about nine percent of the House, roughly the same as the last Congress.
- There will be 11 openly LGBTQ lawmakers in the 117th Congress – a record in terms of both numbers and diversity, according to The Washington Post.
- Only three members of Congress did not go to college while 17 percent served in the military. According to Roll Call, three members of the 117th Congress were born in Canada.
- One-third of all lawmakers that will be sworn in in January are lawyers.
As for what they’ll focus on shortly after being sworn in? After being assigned committees (and figuring out their way around the sprawling Capitol complex) the incoming members of the 117th Congress – the most diverse group of lawmakers in U.S. history – will ratify the results of the Electoral College vote on January 6.