After toiling four years in the minority, Republican lawyers on Capitol Hill are poised to move into key jobs should the GOP win big in the November election.
The lawyers include many longtime congressional aides who built experience working in the majority until Republicans lost their edge in both chambers in 2006. If their party flips control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which polls show is possible, then they’ll be back in positions to drive the agenda.
“I think that there’s a lot of pent-up interest and energy to conduct oversight among Republican staff, particularly in the House,” said Kirkland & Ellis partner Brian Benczkowski, who stepped down last month as the Republican staff director on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Benczkowski, who also worked in the U.S. Department of Justice when Democrats controlled Congress, said he expects “a lot of trepidation and concern developing in the executive branch” about the consequences of divided government.
Many decisions on staffing won’t be finalized until after Election Day, Nov. 2, but barring major shake-ups, much of the Republicans’ top legal staff is already in place, according to interviews with current and former congressional aides.
Public attention is likely to focus on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has subpoena power, a large staff and a broad jurisdiction to investigate the executive branch and private organizations and companies. As with most other committees, the party in the majority has about double the staff of the minority, meaning that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the likely chairman under a Republican majority, would need to hire an additional 40 people.
Rob Borden, now the general counsel to the committee’s Republicans, stands to be part of the majority staff’s leadership. A Capitol Hill staffer since 2001, he has also served as general counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Running the committee’s day-to-day investigations is expected to be Jennifer Safavian, who since 2003 has been the Republicans’ chief counsel for oversight and investigations. The job has given her a leading role in several high-profile investigations, such as the committee’s examination of steroid use in Major League Baseball. Previously, she helped to conduct oversight of the Clinton administration, looking into the Whitewater scandal, fundraising by the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election campaign and the census. She is married to David Safavian, a former federal procurement official who was convicted in 2008 of obstructing justice and making false statements about a golf trip to Scotland and his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Stephen Castor, a counsel, also focuses on investigations. He joined the staff in 2005 from the Washington office of Blank Rome, where he was an associate.
“If the Republicans take over the House in November, they’re going to have a number of seasoned investigators in place to start doing responsible oversight of the Obama administration,” said Mark Paoletta, chairman of the congressional investigations practice at Dickstein Shapiro. Paoletta, a former Republican chief oversight counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Issa’s staff has “as much experience as anyone who’s done oversight in recent memory.”
The House Energy and Commerce Committee could also be in the spotlight for oversight of the Obama administration. But the chairmanship is less certain because Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who is now the top Republican, is bumping up against his party’s term limits for committee leadership. The party could grant him a waiver from the limits or select someone else as chairman. Alan Slobodin is the Republicans’ current chief counsel, and he’s been with the committee since the Republicans’ 1994 victory swept them to power in the House. Before going to Capitol Hill, Slobodin was director of legal studies at the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative public-interest law firm.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is in line to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has a broad policy agenda but could also conduct oversight of the Justice Department. Potentially aiding that oversight role are two of Smith’s top staff members who spent time in DOJ during the George W. Bush administration: chief of staff Sean McLaughlin and his deputy, Richard Hertling. McLaughlin was a deputy assistant attorney general for legislative affairs during Bush’s first term, while Hertling was acting assistant attorney general for legislative affairs in early 2007, when Democrats began examining the firing of U.S. attorneys.
When Judiciary Committee members focus on policy, Republicans will likely turn to George Fishman on immigration. He’s been their chief counsel on the issue since 1998, and he’s worked in Congress almost without interruption since 1988. Caroline Lynch is chief counsel for crime and terrorism, a high-profile position given that some provisions of the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are due to expire during the next two years. Paul Taylor is chief counsel for the constitutional subcommittee, a position that would be in the spotlight if Republicans decide to push legislation related to same-sex marriage or tort lawsuits.
The staff’s experience should make any transition smoother than the one after the 1994 flip, said William Moschella, a former Republican chief counsel on the House Judiciary Committee. Back then, Republicans hadn’t been in the majority in the House in 40 years. “The top staff of the House Judiciary Committee are all sort of experienced hands. They’re not going to have the same kind of learning curve that we had in 1994,” said Moschella, now a partner in the Washington office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
In the House leadership staff, Jo-Marie St. Martin is in position to counsel the next Republican speaker. She’s now the general counsel to Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the minority leader. St. Martin helps to direct floor operations for Boehner, giving advice to Republican members on how to navigate House rules to move or oppose legislation. She’s worked in the House since 1986 except for a two-year period of practicing law in Kingsport, Tenn.
Republicans in the Senate have a much steeper climb to get a majority than their counterparts on the other side of the Capitol. Whether they get there will have big consequences for the staff of one of the Senate’s most important committees, the Judiciary Committee.
If Republicans do not win control, then Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is set to take the top GOP slot on the committee. Grassley would likely bring over at least some of his staff from the Senate Finance Committee, where he has been the ranking Republican. They include Kolan Davis, the staff director and chief counsel, and Emilia DiSanto, special counsel and chief investigator. Rita Lari, who has been Grassley’s chief counsel on the Judiciary Committee staff, would also be in position for expanded duties.
If Republicans do win control, then the situation becomes more complicated because Republican rules might let Grassley become chairman of the Finance Committee. In that case, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has been the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican since last year, could become chairman and keep the current staff. They include staff director Matthew Miner, a Judiciary Committee lawyer since 2006 and former assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama, and Danielle Cutrona, the chief counsel for nominations. (Miner assumed the top job last month, when Benczkowski stepped down.)
Republican senators could also vote for a chairman other than Sessions — but first they’d need to win the majority.
David Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.