Eek! a Discharge Petition!

GEORGE F. WILL

September 20, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The small coterie of senior Democrats who run the House of Representatives, and who by their manner of running it have stirred the public's desire to raze that institution to its foundations and pulverize the foundations, are not having as much fun as they are used to having. Good.

The river of life seems to them suddenly strewn with sharp rocks, the worst being named Inhofe. The Democratic barons believe the world would be a sweeter and better place if Mr. and Mrs. Inhofe had never conceived their son Jim, who grew up to become a Republican congressman from Oklahoma. He has raised a terrific ruckus about an arcane thing called a discharge petition. His ruckus could, ere long, lead to a revolution.

Discharge petitions are instruments for prying legislation loose from the grip of committee chairmen who do not want the legislation to go to the House floor for a vote, because the legislation would be inconvenient if passed and politically hazardous to vote against. You may never have heard of discharge petitions because successful ones are like Halley's comet: They do not come around often. Why?

Two reasons. A successful petition requires 218 signatures. And more important, a House decree dating from 1932 requires that the names on the petitions must be kept secret. In the 61 years since that gag rule was imposed, only 45 petitions have acquired 218 signatures.

Make that 46. Mr. Inhofe's discharge petition has broken the Rules Committee's iron grip on his legislation that, if passed, would end the gag rule that shrouds the discharge process in secrecy.

Although six Jello-like Democrats bent beneath the pressure of their leaders and removed their names from Mr. Inhofe's petition, he, with the help of the Wall Street Journal and Ross Perot's legions and talk radio, got 218 signatures -- 173 of the 176 House Republicans and 45 of 259 Democrats. He won by being naughty.

Barred by the gag rule from revealing who had signed his petition, he instead gave the Wall Street Journal a list of 223 members who were refusing to sign. Talk radio took up the cry and Mr. Perot's United We Stand America took up a 'round-the-clock vigil outside the Boston office of Rep. Joe Moakley, chairman of the Rules Committee where Mr. Inhofe's bill was buried.

The purpose of the vigil was to embarrass Congressman Moakley. How quixotic. Trying to embarrass an entrenched congressional baron is like trying to embarrass a sofa: The object cannot experience the emotion. But Mr. Inhofe won sufficient signatures from some Democrats who fear publicity about doing their leaders' bidding even more than they fear their leaders.

Why do the leaders -- and many lesser members -- fear making discharge petitions public, and therefore more likely to succeed? Because that will complicate the task of tricking constituents.

Some proposals that are immensely popular with the public would be, if passed, hugely inconvenient for the political class. One example is term limits, which are favored by more than 70 percent of the electorate -- large majorities in both parties and all regions -- and are enacted wherever the political class cannot prevent them from being voted on.

As long as popular proposals that threaten the contentment of political careerists can be strangled by committee chairmen, a representative can be tricky. He can tell constituents that he really favors the proposals, but the secrecy surrounding the discharge petition process will hide the fact that he refuses to help bring the proposals to the floor for votes.

So it is with term-limits proposals, which die in that dungeon called the Judiciary Committee. It is chaired by Jack Brooks, a Texas Democrat who was elected the year King George VI died -- 1952 -- and who has been enthroned in Congress longer than Henry VIII reigned.

If Mr. Inhofe's measure to end the secrecy passes, representatives will no longer be able to smother in Washington some of the bills they praise in their districts. Representatives will not be able forever to hide from the hazardous activity of voting on those bills.

Those barons who bother to argue in defense of keeping the names on discharge petitions secret say this: Publicity would mean ''plebiscitary'' government and the end of the House as a ''deliberative'' body. But the secrecy is really part of a scheme to prevent deliberation about important measures.

Mr. Moakley, now in his third decade in Congress, might try various parliamentary ploys to defeat Mr. Inhofe's reform of the discharge process. He and other careerists might even try abolishing the process. But the public is awake and watching. So the barons mourn and cannot be consoled. Good.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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