New lawmakers flex their muscles Freshmen focus on committees

December 04, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The largest crop of freshman House members in more than 40 years flexed their muscle on Capitol Hill yesterday when Democratic newcomers asked that 25 percent of the important committee assignments be set aside for them.

The unusual request to the Democratic leadership was a sign that the new lawmakers -- who came to Congress vowing reform -- may live up to their billing as a force for change.

The leadership had promised to set aside one seat each on these committees, but under the freshmen plan presented last night they would get three each on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and the committees on Appropriations and Energy and Commerce.

The newcomers also arranged to meet with committee chairmen today to question those veteran lawmakers about an agenda for the next Congress.

It will be the first time since the large Watergate class of 1974 that freshmen members will interview committee chairs, who are scheduled to run for re-election Tuesday. The 1974 freshman class went on to overthrow some committee chairmen, although no one is suggesting that will happen this time.

"We know there's a lot expected of us," said one freshman Democrat, noting the group was elected "to provide some mechanism for change."

One Democratic leadership aide said the hierarchy is nervous about the new group, which will make up one-quarter of the majority Democrats in the House. The leadership went on a three-city road show to meet with the new Democrats shortly after the election, and President-elect Bill Clinton plans on meeting with the freshmen lawmakers next week -- another indication of their numerical power.

The 64 Democrats and 46 Republicans -- the largest House class since 1948 -- arrived on Capitol Hill this week for their orientation still uncertain of much influence they would really exert.

"I think we'll be a force for change, but it's not clear what form that change will take," said Rep.-elect Maurice Hinchey, a New York Democrat.

Although the freshmen are clearly not bomb throwers, they do seem eager to show their strength.

"They're not going to be content being back-benchers," said Leslie Byrne, a Virginia Democrat.

The freshmen Democrats plan to meet today with the authors of all the congressional reform proposals, which are designed to end gridlock and streamline a bloated and inefficient Congress.

The reform proposals set for a vote next week are designed to streamline the legislative process, denounced by some members as cumbersome and contributing to the inaction that infuriated voters this year. The proposals include strengthening the role of House speaker, creating a new group to help forge policy and move legislation, and curbing the number of committees.

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