The Next Congress

Retirements, election losses and a host of new committee chiefs will dramatically alter Capitol Hill.

No matter what happens on Election Day, every federal agency is going to discover that dealing with the next Congress will be quite a bit different than dealing with today's 109th.

First, there is the familiarity issue. Due to retirements, resignations and the departures of members seeking higher office, there will be at least 26 new members of the House in 2007 and at least four new senators.

By historical standards, that's not many new faces. But keep in mind that the 2006 midterm elections are still seven months away. Invariably, some members of Congress will fail to win reelection. If this year's politically volatile environment leads to major Democratic gains in November, then the class of 2006 might end up two or three times larger than it looks right now.

A Democratic House or Senate majority also will mean a wholesale changeover of committee chairmen, many of whom will take office with an aggressive oversight agenda that is heavy on investigations and subpoenas and hostile to Bush administration priorities.

At this point, a Democratic takeover is still a long shot. But even if Republicans retain control of the House and Senate, federal agencies could still find Capitol Hill a far less hospitable place than in previous years.

Many congressional Republicans already assume that the party will enter 2007 with diminished majorities. In that event, the administration will shoulder some of the blame for election losses. Amidst the likely recriminations, Republicans will begin distancing themselves from their lame-duck leader and a sizable contingent of conservatives will regroup around the party's traditional theme of fiscal discipline.

A Republican-controlled 110th Congress also would feature a passel of unfamiliar House chairs since at least eight committees will be up for grabs in January as a result of term limits on chairmen.

It was tough enough to handicap the races for these posts before Republicans elected John Boehner as their new majority leader in February. Now things are even more complicated. Aspiring committee chairs who backed Boehner in the leadership race suddenly find their prospects brightened. Those who supported Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., on the other hand, are confronted with the consequences of backing the wrong horse. What's certain is that there will be an infusion of new blood into the top ranks of panels with broad jurisdiction over federal government activity.

Subcommittee chairmanships also will be changing hands, some due to the ripple effect from the scramble for gavels and others stemming from retirements. The retirement of Bill Jenkins, R-Tenn., will bring new oversight to federal peanut, sugar and tobacco programs. Colorado Republican Rep. Joel Hefley's departure will mean a new chairman for the Armed Services Committee's Readiness Subcommittee, which is responsible for the preparedness of military personnel, housing and construction, and the operation and maintenance of all bases. Military veterans will lose a champion in Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

That's just a sampling of the impending changes. Since committee and subcommittee rosters won't become clear until early next year, there's still time for congressional relations shops to prepare for the new landscape. But given the unpredictability of the current political environment, it's not entirely clear where to start.

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