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Ranking the Most Powerful in Congress

Who's got more power on Capitol Hill, Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi? Are young guns with political capital like Rahm Emanuel running the show, or is it better to have subpoena power like Henry Waxman?

While there really are no official answers to questions like these, two recent power rankings from very different publications attempt to answer such hypotheticals: GQ's "50 Most Powerful People in D.C." and Roll Call's "Fabulous 50: The Movers and Shakers Behind the Scenes on Capitol Hill." (Subscription required for Roll Call's listing.)

GQ's list, the newest on the scene, is a ranking of all power players not named Bush or Cheney. The "Fab 50", as Roll Call's list is known on the Hill, is a legendary chart of the most powerful congressional staff, so much so that for months in advance of its release aides quietly lobby Roll Call reporters and editors for spots on the list. (As a Roll Call alum, Capitol Briefing has first-hand experience with this.) Once on the list, staff then jockey to receive more of the four power icons that accompany their place on the chart. There's "The Thinker" for know-how; "Atlas" for muscle; "Discublus" for spinability; and "The Trojan Horse" for access to leaders.

Intentional or not, the GQ and Roll Call rankings make declarations about three ongoing debates about power in Congress. Here's what GQ, Roll Call, and Capitol Briefing have to say. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


A question for the ages has been which chamber's leader has more influence: the Senate majority leader or the House speaker? (A larger question looms over this debate: which CHAMBER is more powerful?) The speaker can rule with an almost iron fist, using the House's simple majority rules to cram legislation through by the slimmest of margins, while the Senate leader has to clear more difficult procedural hurdles to pass legislation. But the Senate gets more oversight of the executive branch with the power to confirm or reject the president's nominees and to ratify or deny international treaties.

For this Congress, GQ and Roll Call have come down decidedly on Reid's side. Just behind Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Reid is ranked as the 2nd most powerful person in Washington by the magazine, winning accolades for his "knowledge of Senate rules and his ability to keep Democrats (Democrats!) aligned." Pelosi falls three slots below Reid, at No. 5, winning praise for passing a new ethics package but getting discredit for not yet securing a withdrawal from Iraq. On the Roll Call list Reid was the clear winner: 5 aides for the majority leader were among the Fab 50, just 3 for Pelosi.

Capitol Briefing believes it's too early to declare which leader has more juice. It's worth noting that Pelosi's inability to secure a troop withdrawal timeline is solely because Reid can't get 60 votes in his chamber. Pelosi's House has passed multiple withdrawal deadlines.

In the years to come, it will be interesting to see if Pelosi can adopt the style of former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his sidekick, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). In their heyday Hastert and DeLay whipped the Senate time and again by perfecting a repeated modus operandi: take a conservative White House proposal, then pass something, by the slimmest of margins, that's far more conservative than even President Bush was seeking; then, at House-Senate conferences, whatever compromise emerged ended up being a more conservative version of the bill than anyone thought possible at the outset.


Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) is the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who, in 2006, steered Democrats to a 30-seat pickup and majority control for the first time in a dozen years. He was rewarded with the No. 4 leadership post, chairman of the caucus. He now has in his corner 42 devotees -- the freshmen class -- who listen to his every word. For raw political strategy, the 47-year-old former Clinton White House aide is the best Democrats have. But does that power really outweigh the sheer muscle of Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee?

Waxman stokes subpoena fear throughout the executive branch. His investigation of Karl Rove's political briefings could lead to criminal investigations. His probing of the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman uncovered a stunning apparent cover up by the Pentagon.

GQ and Roll Call side with Emanuel. GQ ranked Emanuel as No. 17 in its power list, one slot ahead of Waxman (who was tied at No. 18 with another subpoena-power maven, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy). And Roll Call counted Emanuel's top aide, Sean Sweeney, among its Fab 50 while snubbing Phil Schiliro, Waxman's consigliere. For Capitol Briefing's sake, we'll say this: Emanuel may well be the future of congressional Democratic power, but right now Waxman (who turned 68 today -- happy birthday, Mr. Chairman) is the most feared man in the West Wing.


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the go-to guy for the GOP in both chambers. GQ placed McConnell at No. 11, calling him an "expert strategist" who "bested Reid and forced Democrats to remove a timetable" for Iraq withdrawal. Roll Call concurred, placing three top minority leader aides -- as many as Pelosi scored -- on its Fab 50.

After that, GQ sides with the rabble-rousers of the future, not the old line "ranking members" who hold top GOP committee spots. Besides McConnell, no other Republican makes its top 50. In its "up-and-comers", the glossy listed Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), 33, the chairman of the House Republican Conference, who is seen as an agitator. And the mag also listed Ed Corrigan, executive director of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, as its 36th most powerful Washingtonian. Corrigan's the top aide for a caucus of conservative back-benchers that includes Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). The group has increasingly flexed its legislative muscle this year.

Roll Call also counted Corrigan and Putnam's top aide in its Fab 50. But the newspaper gave more weight than GQ to the elder statesmen of the party. Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) counts two staffers among the most powerful, and the top three aides to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) made the grade.

For now, Lott, Boehner and other party elders probably do have more power, but the longer the Republicans stay in the minority, the more and more rank-and-file members will begin to turn to the DeMints and Putnams of the House and Senate to lead them to the majority.

By Paul Kane  |  September 12, 2007; 3:23 PM ET
Categories:  House , Senate  
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What about Paul Kane? Surely he is one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill. Actually, I heard GQ was saving him for the 'most eligible bachelor in DC' list. Apparently, you can't appear on both lists at the same time.
Go Kane, Go!

Posted by: Patrick Huss | September 12, 2007 3:55 PM | Report abuse

With the introduction of the Global Poverty Act into Congress, it is important that these bigwigs adovcate its passage and stick to our government's word of agreement at the 2001 summit in NYC for the Millennium Goals. With 1.2 billion people surviving on less that a dollar each day, we can not afford to waste money on fruitless military pursuits.

Posted by: Erica | September 12, 2007 7:35 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand how either the House or the Senate can blame the other for our failure to exit Iraq. Eventually, doesn't the military always need more money? A simple majority of EITHER house prepared to deny any more funding for Iraq would end the war right there. They'd have to prove that they wouldn't give in to the "You Are Failing To Support Our Troops" tactic, but if they would, they could end the war. So, neither house can blame the other, as far as I can see.

Posted by: Lynn Davis | September 12, 2007 8:06 PM | Report abuse

In response to Lynn Davis: "A simple majority of EITHER house prepared to deny any more funding for Iraq would end the war right there."

It would be even easier in the Senate as it would take less than a majority to block passage since 40 senators could filibuster any funding bill. It doesn't seem there's 40 votes in support of such a measure, though it remains a possible tactic.

Posted by: Quinton | September 13, 2007 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Right now , Verizon and Qualcomm got the real power and they got Congress in a very ugly position , here is why :

Verizon is suing the FCC to stop them from opening up the Taxpayers Radio Spectrum with the new 700-Mhz auctions, and Verizon is insulting the Congress, the consumers and the FCC, Verizon is also distracting the public from the fact they are cutting-off copper lines, ISP'S ,dsl service and choices everywhere they install their proprietary fiber optic, they are using the profits from copper and all the benefits from Public Taxes,right of way,incentives during 100 years as a Public Utility, Government support, exclusive provider, etc.,to finance their own proprietary network, where they intent to choose users, choose services, control access and content and charge at will consumers under their own regulations , this is illegal,un-constitutional, fraudulent, treasonous and insulting to the 100+ years of phone service since Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone,2) and what a criminal shame that for the first time and with the new 700 Mhz spectrum FCC auctions, consumers may have choices and options, what a shame that Verizon would try to stop them, criminal....already Verizon Wireless uses a proprietary system ,CDMA , that is incompatible with the rest of the world and forces consumers to be controlled by Qualcomm in an exclusive monopoly way, the same monopoly that stole the Military Radios of the USA Navy and Air Forces in San Diego in 1995, when Jacobs of Qualcomm, working as an adviser to the Military took all the Navy-Marines-Air Force radios, mixed them up with their own truck radios and others,went to the Patent Office and got a complete and total patent of all the technologies under the CDMA patent and number, and if anyone disagrees: WHERE ARE ALL THE MILITARY RADIOS USED BY THE USA FORCES UNTIL 1995 WHEN EVERYTHING WENT UNDER THE OWNERSHIP OF JACOBS AND QUALCOMM, WHERE ARE THEY ? they were stolen, and now the partners of Qualcomm, Seidenberg chairman of Verizon and the neocons controlling Verizon want to do the same with our future! and about Seidenberg, chairman of Verizon, he got 75 million dollars in salary,stock options and other perks the last 5 years while the Company stock tanked and thousands of workers were let go, shame on the them all ! to the workers and stockholders of Verizon: get your great company back into American hands, get Verizon back into the USA Community, get Verizon to open to GLOBAL STANDARDS AND HONEST COMMERCE, GET VERIZON BACK TO AMERICA !

and so ,is Verizon the one with the real power over Congress, they want to have total control of lines to control elections and Government communications, AS THEY DO RIGHT NOW, and the best friends of Seidenberg and Jacobs are Sen.Schumer,R.Emanuel,S.Coleman,R.Lantos,
S.Lieberman,R.Harman,R.Ros-Lethinen,Mike Bloomberg ,Chertoff and Bodman etc., the same neocons pushing to invade Iraq in 2002 and 2003 every day on TV ,Radio and Newspapers,the ones pushing this great country into this nightmare of violence,Verizon is the real test for Congress and a future as a Free Country.

Posted by: spuorgoohay | September 14, 2007 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Ditto on Paul Kane as one of the top 50 bachelors in DC. Hey Ladies... what are you waiting for?????

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Posted by: MICKEY | November 20, 2007 12:04 AM | Report abuse >mortgage calculator refinance breakeven Charley horse

Posted by: MUFFIN | November 20, 2007 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Foul play

Posted by: CHARLIE | November 20, 2007 2:07 PM | Report abuse

(The) unkindest cut of all

Posted by: HARLEY | November 28, 2007 1:39 PM | Report abuse

The game is afoot

Posted by: SNOWBALL | November 28, 2007 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Green eyed monster

Posted by: CHESTER | November 28, 2007 11:25 PM | Report abuse

Paddle your own canoe

Posted by: JORDAN | November 29, 2007 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Paddle your own canoe

Posted by: JORDAN | November 29, 2007 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Gry - Words ending in

Posted by: PEANUT | November 29, 2007 9:23 PM | Report abuse

Sacred cow

Posted by: LANDEN | November 29, 2007 11:46 PM | Report abuse

By the board

Posted by: CHARLIE | November 30, 2007 2:03 AM | Report abuse

Fingers and thumbs

Posted by: SOPHIA | November 30, 2007 4:34 AM | Report abuse

Run of the mill

Posted by: BROOKLYN | November 30, 2007 7:08 AM | Report abuse

Run of the mill

Posted by: BROOKLYN | November 30, 2007 7:08 AM | Report abuse

My giddy aunt

Posted by: AINSLEY | November 30, 2007 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Halcyon days

Posted by: AINSLEY | November 30, 2007 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Pears for your heirs

Posted by: RASCAL | November 30, 2007 8:51 PM | Report abuse

Gry - Words ending in

Posted by: GINGER | December 1, 2007 4:04 AM | Report abuse

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