How many jobs do the Democrats get to assign?

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Nov. 17 2006 6:21 PM

Help Wanted: Senate Secretary

How many jobs do the Democrats get to assign?

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Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appointed a new sergeant-at-arms and a new secretary of the Senate on Tuesday. Now that the Democrats have retaken both chambers of Congress, how many Capitol Hill employees will get sacked?

Quite a few. The majority party gets the bulk of the money to hire office staff. The Democrats will have control of two-thirds of the funds in the House and three-fifths of the funds in the Senate. According to the National Journal, that means we might see a turnover of about 600 staff positions when the Dems take over.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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Things work a bit differently for Congress' nonpartisan officers and their hundreds of employees. These include the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, who oversee security and handle other administrative duties around the Capitol. (The House sergeant-at-arms also gets control of the chamber's official mace, while the Senate sergeant-at-arms hangs on to the official gavels.) In the House, the other top officers are the chief administrative officer, the clerk, and the parliamentarian, while the Senate has a secretary to run everything from payroll to the gift shop. Each chamber also has its own chaplain.

These top officer positions are technically subject to a full vote, but in practice the majority leaders get to make the decisions. In the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms and secretary may get fired every time there's a change in majority leader, even if overall control remains with one party. When Bill Frist took over from Trent Lott a few years ago, he installed his chief of staff as the new secretary. The selection process was more contentious in the 19th century, before the two-party system became firmly established. In 1814, the Senate voted on nine different candidates for secretary before making a decision.

Firings in the House could be far more extensive. When the Republicans swept into power in 1994 after decades in the minority, they cleaned out the House officers and a significant portion of their staffs. Middle managers complained that they hadn't been patronage appointments and deserved to keep their jobs. The new House leadership also eliminated certain patronage-heavy offices, like that of the official doorkeeper, who had supervised a staff of hundreds. The Democrats aren't likely to make so many changes, but the hirings and firings could extend further down the chain of command.

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Explainer thanks Betty Koed and Don Ritchie of the U.S. Senate Historical Office.