Post-Election Proceedings: What Happens Now

Now that Election Day has come and gone, you may be left wondering, “What’s next?” and you’d be surprised at just how much there is to do between now and when the 112th Congress is sworn in.

112th Congress

As determined by the 20th Amendment, the terms of Senators and Representatives is set to expire at noon on January 3. At this time, the new Congress will be sworn in. The 112th Congress is scheduled to meet from January 3, 2011 to January 3, 2013. Ordinarily, all Members of Congress are sworn in on this date; however, this year, there were a couple of exceptions. Former Governor Joe Manchin (D) was just recently sworn in as the newest Senator for the state of West Virginia, replacing the late Senator Robert Byrd who passed away in June. In addition, Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware was sworn in on the same day, taking over the seat formerly held by Vice President Joe Biden. The swearing-in of these two newly minted Senators coincided with the beginning of what is known as a “lame duck” session of Congress.

What is a “lame duck” session?

A “lame duck” session of Congress is one that meets between Election Day and the time that the new representatives and senators take office. It is referred to as a “lame duck” session because it includes those Members of Congress who were defeated for re-election or who have retired, but whose terms don’t officially end until the end of 2010. A “lame duck” session is often called following a national election in order to deal with pressing national concerns that cannot wait until the new Congress convenes in January. In recent years, these issues have included spending bills and controversial legislation that had been intentionally avoided prior to the election.

However, that is not to say that Members of Congress aren’t busy attending to administrative matters during this time as well. Just this week, Senate Democrats and Republicans voted to keep their respective leaders in place. This means Senator Harry Reid will remain Majority Leader in the 112th Congress, while Senator Mitch McConnell will once again assume the role of Senate Minority Leader.

On the House side, a similar pattern emerged. Democrats voted outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as their new Minority Leader and Republicans unanimously voted Representative John Boehner of Ohio as their new Speaker of the House once the 112th Congress convenes in January. In addition, Representative Eric Cantor—who is the current Minority Whip—will become Majority Leader in the House, with Representative Steny Hoyer taking over as Minority Whip in January. The current Democratic Whip, Representative James Clyburn will become Deputy Minority Leader—a newly created role within Congress—and the new Republican Whip will be Representative Kevin McCarthy.

Committee Assignments

Now that the new leadership for each party has been determined, the process of assigning committee roles and responsibilities has begun. Committee assignments are of particular importance as they often determine the character of a Member’s career. Party leaders, with the input from committee leaders, are currently negotiating committee sizes and ratios prior to the actual assignment process. Once the size and ratios of committees have been established, a panel for each party nominates colleagues for committee assignments. When assigning committee roles, many factors are taken into consideration, including legislators’ skills, expertise, and policy concerns. However, the processes these panels use in nominating their colleagues are distinct. Generally speaking, Republicans base their nominations on seniority, while Democrats make nominations on a seat-by-seat basis, considering a variety of factors.

With a long, tumultuous election season now behind us, we can look forward to January when the 112th Congress is officially sworn in and the “lame duck” session of what remains for the 111th Congress comes to a close.

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