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Transitioning to the 117th Congress

While so many are paying attention to the transition from the Trump to Biden Administrations, keep in mind that there is another transition going on in Washington – the movement on Capitol Hill from the 116th to the 117th Congress.  Majorities will be tighter in both the House and Senate.  House leadership is not expected to change.  While Senators McConnell and Schumer will be their respective party leaders, who will be Senate Majority Leader depends on the January 5 runoff in Georgia, and may not be effective until January 20th when President Biden and Vice President Harris are sworn in.  Should the Senate majority change, every committee chairman and ranking member are expected to swap positions.  There will also be several changes in committee chairs and ranking members in both the House and Senate that could have significant consequences. ​  


Here is what we see at this point.


First, the Senate majority will not be settled until after the two runoffs in Georgia.  Should the Democrats take both runoff seats, they will have a 50-50 tie, sufficient to give Democrats control of the chamber since Vice President Elect Kamala Harris will be the tie breaker.


Second, House Democrats will keep their majority, but at a tighter margin.  At this point, Democrats hold a 221 to 209 seat lead over the Republicans, with 5 seats remaining to be decided – a sharp drop from the 232 seats the Democrats held in the 116th Congress.  As a result, vote margins in the full House will be tighter, forcing Democratic leaders to work harder at keeping unity in their ranks since they can’t afford to lose as many Democratic votes as before.   


Third, many individual House Committees will see internal changes.  Committee ratios are likely to change.  While ratios will be negotiated between House Majority and Minority leadership, it is likely that Republicans will add at least one seat on each full committee and each subcommittee.  Alternatively, Democrats may drop a seat on some committees to modify the ratios.  And specific leadership changes will be taking place.  While we will not know the final outcomes until December and may not have final committee membership assignments until January, here are some to watch:


  • Agriculture – The Agriculture Committee will see both a new chairman and a new ranking member in 2021. Current Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) was defeated in November, and Ranking Member Michael Conaway (R-TX) retired.   David Scott (D-GA) and Jim Costa (D-CA) are challenging each other to become chairman, while Glenn Thompson (R-PA) is expected to be the new Ranking Member.   Though currently there are only one Democratic and four Republican vacancies, we expect committee turnover to be far more extensive, with perhaps one-third to one-half of committee members being new in 2021.  As the committee begins to consider the next farm bill and other changes in programs like SNAP, having new leadership and several new members changes the dynamic.  More than 80 years of congressional agriculture and food expertise will be lost with the departure of Chairman Peterson, Ranking Member Conaway, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Roberts.
  • Appropriations – Following the retirement of current chair Nita Lowey (D-NY), a race to replace her has developed between Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)).   There will be new chairs on the Defense and Commerce, Justice Science Subcommittees, and new ranking members on at least the Energy and Water, Labor-HHS, and Transportation-HUD Subcommittees.  Multiple vacancies on the committee must be filled on both sides of the aisle.
  • Education and Labor – This committee has jurisdiction over all child nutrition programs. We do not expect changes in committee leadership, but there are currently two Democratic and 5 Republican vacancies.
  • Energy and Commerce – This Committee has jurisdiction over the Food and Drug Administration and key health programs. Greg Walden, the full committee ranking member, has retired.  There are currently 4 Democratic and 6 Republican vacancies.

Finally, the Senate will have important new committee chairmen:


  • Agriculture – Pat Roberts (R-KS) has retired, and John Boozman (R-AR) is expected to be the new chairman. This committee has jurisdiction over both the Farm Bill and Child Nutrition Reauthorization.
  • Health, Education, Labor and Pensions – Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has retired, and, with his departure, there will be three Republican vacancies on the Committee. There is one Democratic vacancy.  Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) may become chairman.  Health policy and FDA operations are in this committee’s jurisdiction.

Watch this space for further reports on developments of interest. 


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