House GOP needs unifiers, not a firing squad

June 08, 1999|By Ross K. Baker

A ONCE-dominant congressional majority whose numbers have been reduced is very much like a formerly victorious army in retreat. The rank and file think about deserting and lighting out for home or even defecting to the other side, lest they be caught in the debacle of a military collapse. The generals, for their part, ponder what to do to arrest the flight. The instinct of the brass dictates that they make an example of the runaways by selecting a few to be lined up before a firing squad. But the most cogent argument against exemplary punishment is the simple fact that if you shoot too many of the footloose troops, you'll have no army left.

That is precisely the dilemma facing the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. The skimpiness of their majority is tempting some GOP back-benchers to defy their leaders on major issues of party policy. Retribution against this kind of apostasy would be swift and sure, but only if the Republicans' majority was greater than the handful of votes that separates them from the Democrats. To come down hard on the GOP rebels by stripping them of preferred committee assignments or campaign funds would put at risk the very seats the Republican leaders need to continue as the dominant party. The recent actions of two Republicans in particular have proved to be especially galling to the GOP hierarchy in the House.

A losing quest

Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, campaign finance reform advocate, has waged a long and, thus far, losing campaign to banish soft-money contributions to party organizations because of the inadequacy of the controls on these types of donations. Party leaders welcome the soft money because of the enormous leverage and influence over candidates that it gives them. But for all his passion for reform, Mr. Shays has been careful not to buck his party's leaders or collude too openly with the Democrats.

Now, however, with Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and his lieutenants deferring until the fall a vote on campaign finance reform, Mr. Shays and four of his fellow GOP moderates have committed the supreme act of political apostasy: They have signed a petition that would force an immediate vote on the reform measure. In the House, it is a gesture that strips the leaders of the majority party of their control over the legislative process and delivers it into the hands of the opposition.

Rumors have circulated that Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas has been casting about for a Republican in Mr. Shays' district to challenge him in a primary. Although Mr. DeLay has denied this, the impulse of leaders to enforce party discipline is strong, and they're frustrated when defiance is so bold.

Bold is certainly the term that applies to the efforts by Rep. Tom A. Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, to block the appropriations bill for the operations of the Department of Agriculture. Attacking from the conservative side of the party, Mr. Coburn has used some deft parliamentary maneuvering in his effort to cut $250 million from the legislation. It is a direct challenge to the leadership of Mr. Hastert and, worse, an embarrassment to him because Mr. Coburn has even managed to get the votes of Mr. DeLay and Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas for some of his amendments.

Democrats faced the same kind of high-profile defections in the early 1980s when the so-called Boll Weevils in the party sided with the Reagan administration on major budget and tax bills.

Then, as now, the temptation was to come down hard on the turncoats, but the votes just weren't there and the gesture would have been self-defeating. Even disloyal Democrats counted as part of the party's anemic majority.

Bridging the gap

The most sensible course was the one pursued by the Democratic caucus chairman, Rep. Gillis Long of Louisiana, who proclaimed that the party needed unification not purification, and he assembled a group of centrist members to serve as a bridge to those in the party whose loyalty was wavering.

Perhaps J.C. Watts, the GOP caucus chairman and the first African-American to serve in a Republican leadership position, should take on the job of acting as chaplain to the demoralized troops despite the temptation to unleash the military police.

Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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