House GOP Leaders Prepare to Swap Titles—and Office Space
A reminder about the Capitol: "Nothing is more important here to people than real estate."
With no fanfare—well, maybe a little fanfare—House Republicans by the end of this week will officially have a brand new majority leader, a new majority whip, and just 12 scheduled legislative days remaining before it's time to pick yet another new slate of leaders.
This all happens, technically, after the stroke of midnight Thursday, commemorated in a notification by Republicans to the House clerk declaring that as of Aug. 1, Kevin McCarthy is the majority leader and Steve Scalise is the new majority whip.
No parade. No ticker tape.
Meanwhile, the current majority leader, Eric Cantor, doesn't completely turn into a pumpkin.
But Cantor's already diminished visibility and influence will now be accompanied by a loss of much of his staff as well as his prime second-floor Capitol office digs between Statuary Hall and the Rotunda, close to where the No. 1 House Republican, Speaker John Boehner, commands.
Cantor has said he will remain as a congressman through the end of this term and not quit early. But now, his Washington activities through December will mostly be based out of his regular third-floor office in the Cannon House Office Building.
"My grandfather said it best: A peacock one day, a feather duster the next. That's the best way you can explain it," said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn.
"In fact, my heart goes out to Eric Cantor and his family," Larson said. But he added of Congress, "Nothing is more important here to people than real estate. When you're out, you're out."
That may seem a smidge like crocodile tears from a political adversary. But as a former House Democratic Caucus chairman, Larson has gone through kind of the same thing himself—although not at quite the same level—having lost his leadership status in 2013 because of Democratic Caucus term limits.
Cantor's office did not return requests for an interview about this week's official changeover.
It wasn't term limits that did in Cantor's leadership status. Rather, it was Republican voters in his Virginia district.
And it was right after his primary election loss that Cantor announced he would step down as majority leader—but not right away. He set July 31 as the date. And that set off an internal House Republican election to replace him.
The result was that McCarthy was chosen to move up from being majority whip to majority leader, a rise from No. 3 to the No. 2 spot. And Scalise was picked to succeed McCarthy as whip—a job that makes him the party's new vote counter and enforcer.
A McCarthy spokesman said Friday that he wasn't sure whether all the final decisions regarding his boss's office space had been made.
However, other House Republicans said the Californian has told them he has decided not to move into the second-floor space Cantor is vacating, but instead stay where he is in a suite of first-floor offices off the main hallway in the Capitol. In fact, current Minority Whip Steny Hoyer occupied that same space that McCarthy will remain when he was majority leader until 2011. And Boehner also made that his base of operations when he was majority leader.
Instead, it is Scalise and his whip operations that are moving to take Cantor's space—and Scalise's chosen chief deputy whip, Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, will work in a third-floor office above that spot.
As of Friday, that reshuffling still had not occurred and Scalise's operations remained holed up in a temporary location in the basement of the Capitol, in HC-8.
(There has been talk of the House's chief administrative officer finding Cantor some other niche as a "majority leader emeritus" on the first floor of the Capitol. But a space crunch, caused by renovations elsewhere on Capitol Hill, and the demands for such things as space for the new select committee on Benghazi are crimping available office space.)
"Have you ever tried to move a Capitol Hill office?" one senior leadership aid said. "It's one of the most miserable experiences possible. It takes forever to box everything up."
"But we'll be fully engaged next week," Rep. Dennis Ross, picked by Scalise to be a member of his senior whip team, said Friday. In fact, the Florida Republican said the first test for the new whip team will be work on leadership's bill to respond to the border crisis, which faces stiff hurdles within the GOP Conference.
Previously Scalise had been serving as chairman of the largely conservative Republican Study Committee, which boasts more than 170 members. But it remains to be seen whether Boehner and his leadership team—with the Louisianan on board—will now have any firmer hold over the often rowdy right wing of the GOP Conference.
"It's a tough first test," agreed Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who predicted that Scalise will get a load of help in this maiden effort from McCarthy and his old whip team.
As of Friday, meanwhile, the nameplates outside all of these offices remained as they have been. That includes Cantor's name, along with the title of majority leader, on the door of a ceremonial office just across the hall from the House chamber.
Cantor has for weeks scaled back his visible activities, such as appearing with other GOP leaders in front of microphones after closed-door conferences or engaging on the floor with Hoyer over the upcoming week's agenda. In that, he has already deferred to McCarthy.
And as of Friday, no GOP events or parties were planned this week to commemorate the actual turnover in leadership. A closed-door GOP conference set for Tuesday may or may not even make note of it, aides said.
This new era could well be a short one. That's because the House is scheduled to have just 10 additional legislative days in September, and then two more days in October, before breaking again until after the Nov. 4 elections. And then, House Republicans both reelected and newly elected will vote on a leadership team for the next Congress.
Perhaps recalling what had happened to Cantor, McCarthy and Scalise are holding off on the trumpets. Larson says a description of Congress given to him once by Rep. John Conyers may best explain it
"The thing about this place," Larson said, "is they bury the bodies warm. I was a freshman. That's the first thing he told me."
This article appears in the July 28, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.