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The First Day of School on Capitol Hill

When the new Congress is inaugurated in January, they’ll first focus on organizing, not legislating.

As the current session of Congress nears its end, members are furiously trying to wrap up their legislative agenda so they can get home for the holidays ahead of a “bomb cyclone” that is expected to create dangerous storms and freezing temperatures for much of the country.

But the break after they finalize the fiscal year 2023 omnibus spending bill and the National Defense Authorization Act – the only two outstanding pieces of legislation remaining in the current Congress – will be brief. The new Congress will be sworn in on January 3.

Do not expect the new and returning crop of lawmakers to dive right into their legislative agenda, however. The first weeks of a new Congress are mostly for organizing – and sometimes it takes even longer than that. Let’s take a look.

Getting the House in Order

Last week, the Congressional Research Service, which is the nonpartisan research body for members of Congress, provided a peek into the U.S. House of Representatives’ organizing activities for the first day of the new session.

As CRS noted, the House will follow “a well-established first-day routine” on January 3. The proceedings will include:

  • Call to order by the Clerk of the House;

  • A prayer led by the chaplain and the Pledge of Allegiance led by the House clerk;

  • Quorum call ordered by the clerk; and

  • The election of the Speaker of the House.

The House cannot do anything until it has a speaker, and this vote is where we could see the House’s first fireworks. The speaker is elected by a vote of all 435 House members, regardless of party. (Other House leaders, like the minority and majority leaders, are elected only by the members of the party the represent.)

While the presumptive speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), has the support of the majority of Republicans, there are some GOP lawmakers who are on the fence — or who want to extract certain promises from Rep. McCarthy before they will vote for him. In fact, according to CNN, at least five Republican lawmakers currently oppose Rep. McCarthy’s candidacy.

If Rep. McCarthy cannot convince at least 218 Republicans to vote for him, he will need the support of a handful of Democrats to win the speakership. If he cannot get that, as The Hill noted, it “could lead to a Democratic Speaker. Such a result is very, very unlikely because Republicans will have the majority in the vote and do not want this to happen. But it is possible — if chaos on the floor prompted frustrated GOP moderates to back a centrist Democrat — that a member of the minority could be elected speaker.”

Other options, according to The Hill: lawmakers could come up with a more moderate GOP candidate with whom both Republicans and Democrats can live as speaker or — if you can believe this — lawmakers could elect a speaker from outside the House. As The Hill explained, “House rules do not technically require that the speaker is a sitting, elected member of House — though every speaker in U.S. history has been. That leaves open the possibility of members looking for a McCarthy alternative elsewhere.”

Buckle your seatbelts if that happens. Lawmakers could choose literally anyone, even, say, former President Donald Trump. (Of course, that person would have to earn the votes of more than half of the chamber to be seated.)

The most likely scenario, however, is that Rep. McCarthy squeaks by. If that happens, the House will finish its first day in session with remarks from the speaker-elect, the oath of office for the newly elected and reelected members, adoption of the rules of the House for the new Congress, and announcement of the speaker’s policies.

In other words: paperwork.

The Senate’s First Day

The Senate’s first day in session will be very similar. Like in the House, there is a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance followed by the swearing in of all senators’ elect.

According to congressional historians, the Senate, unlike the House, does not have to adopt a package of rules to govern its work. That is because every two years only one-third of the senators are elected or reelected, allowing two-thirds to continue serving without interruption.

Once senators-elect have been sworn in, Vice President Kamala Harris, acting in her role as President of the Senate, will direct the Senate clerk to call the roll to establish a quorum, which the U.S. Constitution requires in order for the Senate to proceed with any business.

If quorum is reached (and it will be), the Senate will then proceed administrative business, which often includes the election of the president pro tempore, the secretary of the Senate, the sergeant at arms, and the chaplain. (The Senate majority and minority leaders already have been elected by their respective parties.) Senators also will typically adopt a resolution to set procedures for operating the Senate during the next two years. The resolution may include committee ratios, committee membership, and other agreements made between the majority and minority parties on the operation of the Senate.

For the next few weeks, then, leaders will determine who will fill those committee seats.

Organizing Committees

While we know at this point who will lead most of the House and Senate’s standing committees, there will be some shuffling among the rank and file membership of each panel. As a result of the election, Democrats will have more lawmakers sitting on Senate committees and, of course, they are losing power on the House panels.

As CRS explained in 2006, once the sizes and ratios of standing committees are determined by party leaders, a panel for each party nominates colleagues for committee assignments. The parties consider factors like seniority or a lawmaker’s expertise on a certain issue, or interest in it, to make these determinations.

Of course, it is not just the lawmakers who sit on each committee that will change. The budgets and staff makeup of each committee also are proportional to the number of seats each party holds in their respective chambers. Democrats may have to let go some of their House staff while the GOP will add experts to their ranks in that chamber.

Organizing Individual Lawmakers Offices

Lawmakers who were elected for the first time this past November also will have to set up their own offices. Their respective party leaders will first have to decide where to house these new members. Like new freshmen getting the least desirable high school lockers, junior lawmakers often get space in the basement or in buildings farther away from the U.S. Capitol.

Like any employer, these lawmakers will have to develop budgets, employment policies and practices, and the number of people they want to work for them. As the nonprofit, nonpartisan Congress Foundation has explained, lawmakers also will need to decide:

  • Which committee assignments they want to petition for;

  • Who they should hire for the staff positions they create;

  • How many district or state offices they should open and where to locate each one;

  • Whether to request new equipment and how to make sure technology is hooked up and working; and

  • Their legislative goals for their first term.

Like any college freshman, there also will be plenty of orientation meetings and mixers to attend. Getting to know the lay of the land on Capitol Hill — and their colleagues — will take up a lot of time in January.

Lawmakers also will spend time considering which caucuses they want to join. As one source explains, caucuses, which are officially known as congressional member organizations, are “voluntary associations consisting of Representatives and Senators who share specific policy goals or interests.” Some caucuses are more serious and powerful, such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Republican Study Group, and some have a more…narrow…focus, like the Congressional Candy Caucus.

Caucuses cannot approve legislation, hold formal hearings, or exert any legal authority of Congress. Then why join them then? Because they provide “a way for like-minded representatives and senators with mutual interests and goals to get to know one another.” Sometimes these panels even help lawmakers to come together across the aisle to support legislation. And there’s at least some evidence that lawmakers see value in them. There were 460 caucuses in the most recent Congress, a four-fold increase from 30 years ago when there were just 100 caucuses.

Bipartisanship? Imagine that.

How Long Until We See Some Lawmaking?

While lawmakers will start introducing legislation right away, it will take time for those bills to wend their way through committees.

The current Congress did not send its first bill — legislation to provide for an exception to a limitation against appointment of persons as Secretary of Defense within seven years of relief from active duty as a regular commissioned officer of the Armed Forces — to President Joe Biden’s desk until the end of January.

President Biden had only signed three other bills into law by the end of March. One of those was the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the Biden administration’s COVID relief bill, but in a divided Washington, expect things to move even more slowly.

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