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Just five House committees in new Congress will have Southerners at the helm
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com
WASHINGTON (CFP) — When it comes to Southern clout in the U.S. House, what a difference an election makes.
In the recently departed Congress, with Republicans in control, 13 of the 22 committee chairs hailed from the 14 Southern states; in the newly installed Congress, with Democrats in charge, that number will fall to just five.
Five Southern Republican chairs retired, and one, Pete Sessions of Texas, went down to defeat in November. Those who stayed find themselves in the minority for the first time in eight years.
The switch in control has shifted power from the GOP, in which Southerners made up nearly half of the caucus, to the Democrats, where Southerners only make up a fifth. And that has led to reduced numbers of Southerners among committee chairs.
All five of the committees that will be chaired by Southern Democrats in the new Congress were chaired by Southern Republicans in the last Congress, so there will be no loss of influence on those panels.
Also, the outgoing majority whip, Republican Steve Scalise of Louisiana, will be replaced by the incoming majority whip, Democrat Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. Both men remain the only Southern members in their party’s top leadership.
But eight other committees that had GOP chairmen will now be headed by lawmakers from outside the region. And that list contains a number of the most powerful and high-profile chairmanships in Washington, including Judiciary, Rules, Ways and Means, and Oversight and Reform.
The five Southern Democratic committee chairmen are John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Budget; Ted Deutch of Florida, Ethics; Bobby Scott of Virginia, Education and Labor; Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Homeland Security; and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, Science, Space and Technology.
Unlike Republicans, who select committee chairs by voting within the caucus, Democrats use seniority. All five of the Southern Democrats ascending to chairmanships had been the ranking Democratic member when Democrats were in the minority.
Scott, Thompson and Johnson, all members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are among eight new chairs who are African American or Latino. In the departing Republican Congress, all of the chairs were white, and 20 were men.
Southerners will make up a slight majority within the Republican caucus in the new Congress, which is reflected in the GOP’s new committee leadership. On 14 of the 22 House committees, the ranking Republican in the new Congress will be from the South.
Among the notable newcomers to that group are Kay Granger of Texas, who will be ranking member on Appropriations, and Doug Collins of Georgia, on Judiciary–the committee that would handle any impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
Six Southern Republicans who had been chairs of their committees will continue as ranking members in the new Congress–Mike Conaway of Texas, Agriculture; Mac Thornberry of Texas, Armed Services; Steve Womack of Arkansas, Budget; Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, Education and Labor; Phil Roe of Tennessee, Veterans’ Affairs; and Kevin Brady of Texas, Ways and Means.
In addition to Granger and Collins, five other Southern Republicans were also newly named as ranking members–Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, Financial Services; Kenny Marchant of Texas, Ethics; Mike Rogers of Alabama, Homeland Security; Tom Cole of Oklahoma, Rules; and Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, Science, Space and Technology.
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Committee looking into whether Farenthold lied, used government resources in his political campaigns
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas used government resources in his congressional campaigns and lied to the committee during an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment claims by a former staffer.
Meanwhile, CNN is reporting that a former staffer has told House investigators that she was pressured to perform campaign-related tasks during regular work hours in Farenthold’s congressional office, activity that is not allowed under House rules.
The latest charges are likely to increase pressure on Farenthold, who has already announced that he won’t seek re-election in 2018 after revelations that he used $84,000 of government money to settle a lawsuit by a former staffer who alleged that she was fired after complaining about sexually suggestive comments made to her by the congressman and another male staffer.
In a December 21 news release, the chair and ranking member of the House Ethics Committee — U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks, R-Indiana, and Ted Deutch, D-Florida — announced that their probe of Farenthold had expanded from the original sexual harassment allegations to include allegations that staff resources may have been used on his campaigns, that he or “any person acting on his behalf” may have required staff members to work on his campaigns, and that he “may have made false statements or omissions in testimony to the committee.”
The statement did not give any details to indicate why the probe had expanded.
In response to the Ethics Committee’s statement, Farenthold’s office released a statement to Texas and national media noting that he had previously been cleared of sexual harassment charges by the Office of Congressional Ethics and pledging his full cooperation with the committee’s expanded probe.
CNN reported that former Farenthold staffer Elizabeth Peace told Ethics Committee lawyers that she was pressured to work on Farenthold’s 2016 campaign during regular office hours in her Capitol office, using House-issued computers and her work e-mail account. The network cited a source familiar with Peace’s conversation with the lawyers; she refused comment to CNN, although she did acknowledge talking to committee staff.
Under House rules, congressional staffers are only allowed to work on campaigns on their own time, and they are not allowed to use House resources, such as office space, computers, or email accounts,, to do political work.
In 2014, Farenthold’s former communications director, Lauren Greene, sued for gender discrimination, sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, alleging that she was fired after complaining about sexually suggestive comments made to her by the congressman and another male staffer. The Office of Congressional Ethics investigated and cleared Farenthold, and he reached a mediated out-of-court settlement with Greene in 2015.
The revelation that $84,000 in taxpayer dollars had been used to pay Greene’s settlement in early December led Farenthold to abandon his 2018 re-election campaign in Texas’s 27th District, which sprawls across the Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi and Houston.
In a statement posted to Facebook on December 14, Farenthold insisted that the sexual harassment charges made against him by Greene were false, but he conceded that a lax management style in his Washington office created a “decidedly unprofessional” work environment — a situation he blamed on his lack of political experience after being elected in 2010.
“I had no idea how to run a congressional office and, as a result, I allowed a workplace culture to take root in my office that was too permissive and decidedly unprofessional,” Fahrenthold said. “It accommodated destructive gossip, offhand comments, off-color jokes and behavior that in general that was less than professional.”
“And I allowed the personal stress of the job to manifest itself in angry outbursts and, too often, a failure to treat people with the respect that they deserved,” he said. “Clearly, that was wrong. It is not how I was raised, it’s not who I am, and for that situation, I am profoundly sorry,” he said.
High court gives state legislature 100 days to draw new map to fix problems with eight districts
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
GAINESVILLE, Florida (CFP) — The Florida Supreme Court has struck down the state’s map of congressional districts, ruling that the Republican-controlled state legislature unconstitutionally gerrymandered the map to help the GOP’s electoral prospects.
In a 5-to-2 ruling issued July 9, the high court agreed with a lower court ruling last year that the 2011 redistricting process had been “tainted” by partisan gerrymandering, which was outlawed by Florida voters in a constitutional amendment passed in 2010.
The trial court had ordered changes in two districts, but the Supreme Court went further, ruling that eight of the state’s 27 districts were improperly drawn and giving legislators 100 days to come up with a new map that complies with the anti-gerrymandering amendment. The new map will be in place for the 2016 elections.
While the high court did not order the entire map to be redrawn, reworking the eight districts in question is likely to have an impact on many of the surrounding districts, particularly in northeast Florida, where justices ordered an oddly shaped, black plurality district represented by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown to be completely reconfigured.
Responding to testimony in the trial court that showed Republican legislators and consultants had met behind closed doors to draw the congressional maps, the Supreme Court majority also encouraged the legislature “to conduct all meetings in which it makes decisions on the new map in public and to record any non-public meetings for preservation.”
There was no immediate word from legislative leaders as to when a special legislative session might be convened to redraw the congressional map.
The ruling was a victory for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, which filed suit to overturn the maps. Pamela Goodman, the president of the league, called the decision a victory “against devious political scheming.”
“The Florida Supreme Court took the Florida Legislature to the woodshed,” she said in a statement. “Their egregious behavior using partisan political operatives in the redistricting process was appropriately reprimanded.”
The Republican-controlled legislature decided not to appeal the trial court’s ruling in 2014, which led to a special session of the legislature to make minor changes in the map. But the League of Women Voters appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that those changes didn’t go far enough.
The eight districts found to be unconstitutional are equally split between Democrats and Republicans. But the changes ordered by the court are giving Democrats hopes of making inroads in Florida’s congressional delegation. Despite the state’s even political split, Republicans hold a 17-to-10 advantage among House members.
The Supreme Court ruled that Brown’s north-south district — which snakes through northeast and central Florida from Jacksonville to Orlando to pick up black voters and is at one point the width of a highway — should be redrawn in an east-west configuration from Jacksonville towards the Panhandle. The current black voting age population in the district is 48 percent.
While moving the district could create an opening for a minority candidate in the Orlando area, it might also present problems for U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, whose 2nd District includes areas along the Georgia border that would be shifted into the 5th District.
Brown, one of just three African-Americans in Florida’s congressional delegation, had joined with Republicans in the legislature in defending the map. She blasted the high court’s decision in a statement, saying it was “seriously flawed and entirely fails to take into consideration the rights of minority voters.”
While Brown did not indicate if she might file a federal lawsuit to stop the court-mandated redistricting, she did say that “as a people, African-Americans have fought too hard to get to where we are now, and we certainly are not taking any steps backwards.”
In the 13th District, which takes in most of Pinellas County, the Supreme Court held that the legislature’s decision to shift African-American voters in St. Petersburg into the neighboring 14th District, across the bay in Tampa, to make the 13th more Republican-friendly violated a requirement that districts be geographically compact wherever possible.
Shifting those voters back into the 13th District could make life more difficult for Jolly, who won the seat in a special election last year. But Jolly’s office issued a statement after the ruling saying he was not concerned about the prospect that his district might be redrawn.
“The courts and the legislature will determine next steps, and Congressman Jolly will remain focused solely on doing his job and serving all of Pinellas County,” the statement said. “If he continues to do the job he was elected to do, the politics will take care of itself.”
Here are the other districts that are affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling:
21st District and 22nd District – These two districts, in Palm Beach and Broward counties in South Florida, run parallel to each other, one along the Atlantic Coast and the other inland. The Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs that these two districts would be more geographically compact if they were made wider and stacked on top of each other, although the high court stopped short of ordering the legislature to adopt that configuration. The 21st District is represented by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton; the 22nd District by U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.
25th District – The court’s objection to this district was that legislators split Hendry County, a rural county with a majority minority population, between the 25th District and the adjacent 20th District, instead of putting the county entirely in the 25th. The legislature argued that it split the county to comply with the Voting Rights Act, but the high court said legislators had not proven that putting the county in a single district would compromise the electoral prospects of minority voters. The district, which would become more Democratic if all of Hendry County is included, is represented by U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.
26h District and 27th District – The court objected to the legislature’s decision to split the city of Homestead, south of Miami, between these two districts, which had the effect of creating two Republican-leaning districts, rather than one safe district for each party. The high court ordered the legislature to put all of Homestead in one district. District 26 is represented by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami; District 27 by veteran U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. Whichever of them gets Homestead will have to deal with more Democratic voters, although Ros-Lehtinen said she had “no worries” about the prospect that her district lines might shift.