Red Alert on Capitol Hill

September 30, 1993

Rebellious and resentful Republicans, aided by a fair number of Democrats, many of them first termers, forced the House of Representatives leadership to agree to change its secrecy rule involving discharge petitions. The secrecy rule allowed House leaders to keep hot-button but unwise legislation bottled up in committee till public passions cool. Like a lot of reasonablecongressional rules, it has been abused in the past.

Ross Perot brought his legions to support Rep. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the leader of the anti-secrecy effort. They believe, probably correctly, that if the names on a discharge petition are a public matter, some members who otherwise might not sign will, pressured by public opinion. After the House leaders were forced to respond to Representative Inhofe's initiative, Mr. Perot said at a pep rally, "this is a great day for our country, but every American needs to stay on red alert until this thing is finished."

He was right about that. Some Democratic leaders were then considering rewriting the discharge petition rule to end secrecy -- but they would have made other changes that would keep it difficult to wrest control of bills from the leadership.

Secrecy of this sort is out of place. Members should be willing to say they are for or against having a vote on a bill. But a transient majority ought not have the power or responsibility to take any item at any time to the floor of the House for a vote. The powers of agenda and priority belong with the elected leadership, if the legislative process is to work with any smoothness and rationality.

That conservatives would lead the fight for what could become in effect law-making by plebiscite shows just how frustrated Republicans have become after 40 straight years of Democratic control. That so-called populists like Ross Perot are also piling on shows just how anti-Congress a large segment of the public has become.

Democratic leaders in the end had to concede to Representative Inhofe. If things don't work out as expected, Democratic leaders will have to try to fashion a compromise with Republicans that is neither a surrender of their responsibility to manage the House's activities day by day nor a disguised resumption of arbitrary and unresponsive abuse of that responsibility.

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