Coalition nears victory on rule forcing bills out of congressional committees

September 09, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A coalition of mostly Republican lawmakers, talk show hosts and Ross Perot followers won a surprise victory yesterday with the virtual defeat of an obscure House rule that makes it easier for Democratic leaders to block proposals with populist appeal.

Thanks to an intense outpouring of public pressure over the past few weeks, a majority of House members signed a petition yesterday supporting a procedural change that would end a practice that allows lawmakers to declare their support for legislation while secretly refusing to help force it out of committee to a floor vote.

Both sides in the bitter power struggle, which is likely to result in a formal House vote in favor of the rules change unless House leaders can head it off, described the results in cataclysmic terms.

"The good old boys are on their way out, and the people are on the way in," the GOP victors crowed in their floor speeches. Rep. James M. Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma who was prime sponsor of the procedural change, dubbed it "the greatest reform move in the history of Congress."

Rewarding 'hypocrites'

Mr. Perot and talk show hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh, claimed that the current system allows legislators to be "hypocrites" by -- purporting to support proposals -- such as limiting the terms of congressmen -- they know will probably be squelched in committees.

The 63-year-old House rule under siege allows such bills to be petitioned out of committee, but the names of members who sign the petition -- or who refuse to -- are kept secret unless a majority of 218 is achieved.

Vanquished House Democratic leaders warned darkly that the procedural change to make the names of petition signers public would simply make it easier for small, but vocal special interests to get their way at the expense of the public at large.

"This House was created to be a deliberative body, but instead it's going to be even more responsive to an emotional, uninformed public and radio talk show hosts," predicted Representative Mike Synar, an Oklahoma Democrat.

L "That is not in the best long-term interests of the nation."

Rules Committee Chairman Joe Moakley of Massachusetts, who will try to fashion a compromise on the rules change, said he fears that making it too easy to force bills out of committee would subvert the committee process entirely. Any legislator who agrees to support a proposal in concept would thus be held up to public contempt if he did not support a speedy floor vote on the proposal as introduced with no chance for amendment, Mr. Moakley warned.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute who is directing a project aimed at recommending reforms to House and Senate leaders, said that the procedural change was a step in the wrong direction toward legislating by plebiscite "in the heat of the moment."

"It is a power struggle over who's going to flex their muscles and who's going to set the litmus tests," Mr. Ornstein said. "I'm sorry to see the Republicans are going along with it because it isn't going to help them. They've just helped to unleash something, and they don't know what's going to happen."

The rhetorical positions on both sides were admittedly exaggerated for effect.

Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, who supports the idea of lifting the secrecy, but did not sign the Inhofe proposal because he doesn't believe in forcing bills out of committee, said the issue has been blown wildly out of proportion.

But clearly the conflict marked another milestone in a battle for political control that feeds on Americans' increasing cynicism about their government and elected leaders.

Mr. Inhofe had been working the issue for more than six years with very little notice until the conservative editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal took up his cause this summer.

The Journal argued that Democratic House leaders were able to suppress popular legislation because members who refused to sign petitions to force such proposals out of committee were not held up to public scrutiny.

In fact, Mr. Inhofe's proposal to lift what he called the "gag rule" on committee discharge petitions was subject to the same roadblock because Mr. Moakley wouldn't let it out of the Rules committee.

By yesterday Mr. Inhofe was declared a hero by Mr. Perot, whose supporters joined in what became a tireless three-week effort of phone calls, picketing congressional offices and calling talk shows in order to convince House members their careers were on the line if they did not sign the petition.

Before the August recess, Mr. Inhofe had been seven votes short the 218 he needed to force a floor vote. When the House reconvened at noon yesterday, 15 members were lined up to add their names to the list.

The last signer

The last one to sign was Representative Margorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, the Pennsylvania Democrat who switched her position last month and cast the deciding vote in favor of President Clinton's deficit reduction plan. A total of 174 Republicans and 44 Democrats signed the petition.

Although pressure brought to bear in support of Mr. Inhofe's proposal was described by House leaders as a classic example of the sort of demagogy the rules change will encourage, many acknowledged this was a political fight they couldn't hope to win.

Representative Marty Meehan, a freshman Democrat from Massachusetts who signed on with the mostly Republican forces, said he believed his fellow Democrats ought to pick their fights better.

"This is a classic case of the public's right to know," Mr. Meehan said. "Members of Congress have just got to get better at explaining their tough votes. I think the process will be better served."

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