On Capitol Hill, newcomers make presence felt


December 12, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Sam Rayburn must be spinning in his grave.

The stern, domineering former House Speaker from Texas believed freshman lawmakers should be patient and mostly silent until they learned the legislative ropes. But this week in the opulent, wood-paneled Rayburn Room, President-elect Bill Clinton stood before the large crop of House Democratic freshmen and urged the new representatives to be "agents for constructive impatience."

They didn't need any prodding. The 110-member freshman class, the largest since 1948, was already starting to throw its weight around Capitol Hill.

First, Democratic newcomers demanded, and received, extra seats on the most powerful House committees. Then, Republican freshmen helped to oust GOP Conference Chairman Jerry Lewis of California in favor of Dick Armey of Texas.

Finally, the 24 new women from both parties issued an unusual call for Congress to stop exempting itself from sexual harassment laws and quickly approve their legislative priorities.

The new crop of lawmakers is clearly not as radical as the 1974 freshmen, the "Watergate Class," which expelled three committee chairmen during their revolt.

Most of this year's newcomers are political insiders, according to political analysts and veteran lawmakers. More than 70 percent of the class served in state legislatures, city councils or other elected offices, they noted.

But most of the freshmen ran against Congress and gridlock, promising their constituents change on Capitol Hill.

"We want to make sure gridlock is broken here," said Rep.-elect Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat. "If things are stalemated for whatever reason, I think you're going to see this class push."

The political strength of the freshmen lies in their numbers. Their clout prompted House Democratic leaders to fly around the country after the election to meet with and court the 63 new Democrats.

Mr. Clinton also sought to enlist their support when he took the unprecedented step of meeting with them separately during his trip to Washington.

"I think he has a lot in common with them," said Dee Dee Myers, his press secretary. "A lot of them ran on a message of change."

The president-elect pressed them to enact campaign finance reform to "signal to the people that we're serious about change," said Leslie Byrne, a freshman Democrat from Virginia.

Mr. Clinton "reached out to us . . . made an offer to be partners with not only the whole Congress but the freshman class in particular," said Lynn Schenk, a freshman Democrat from California.

Although the House leadership is privately nervous about the potential power of the neophyte lawmakers, some publicly played down the potential for freshmen strength and mischief.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, a powerful Chicago politician who didn't want freshmen on his tax-writing panel, merely chuckled when asked about Mr. Clinton's reference to "constructive impatience."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, meanwhile, was somewhat defensive about Mr. Clinton's call to arms to the freshman class.

"I think that's a proper position for just about any member of the Congress to take," he said. Asked if it was a challenge to the House leadership, Mr. Hoyer said: "I feel mostly the press is implying that."

Almost as soon as the freshmen arrived in Washington two weeks ago, they started shaking things up. The Democrats requested 25 percent of the committee vacancies. They ended up with only one of the 10 vacancies on Ways and Means, but they picked up 25 percent of the seats on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

They gathered five of the seven available seats on the Energy and Commerce Committee, a panel with a legislative reach that extends from corporate takeovers to health care.

Besides acquiring more committee assignments than the leadership offered, the Democratic newcomers also instructed committee chairmen (including Mr. Rostenkowski) to appear before the class and outline an agenda -- a request that hasn't been made by freshmen since the class of 1974.

Moreover, the new Democrats received assurances from colleagues that the approved House rules would be brought up again within 90 days, giving the freshmen more time to review changes that include cutting back on subcommittees and creating a new Democratic policy group to speed legislative action. A freshmen task force will be created to study the reforms.

"I think we've made quite an impact on that process," boasted Ohio Democrat Eric D. Fingerhut, who served as freshman liaison to the House leadership.

But the new members were not successful in everything they tried to do. Republicans killed an upstart measure by Peter Torkildsen of Massachusetts, a member of the party, that would compel senior Republicans to step down from their leadership posts if they are indicted.

It happens that the top Republican on the powerful Appropriations Committee, Rep. Joseph McDade of Pennsylvania, is under indictment for an assortment of bribery charges. Mr. McDade said that all members should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

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