Democrats, seeking control of House, say they'd behave

Party vows `reform' if it regains majority

April 21, 2000|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt readily concedes, there's nothing subtle about the campaign he and his fellow Democrats are waging to wrest control of the House back from the Republicans they regard as usurpers.

Their Web site is -- which blares the message: "6 seats to a Democratic majority!"

Candidate recruitment and fund raising, intended to erase the Democrats' six-seat deficit, have dominated the party leaders' time for months. And with a sense of anticipation that is almost palpable, Gephardt and company are now daring to tempt fate by debating exactly how they will run the House after they take over.

For all the Democrats' yearning for a return to power after five years as the minority party, they are not exactly nostalgic for the high-handed way the House was run when they were last in charge.

Committee chairmen ruled like tribal chieftains. Freshmen, women, blacks, mavericks and those too far left or right were often taken for granted or ignored.

And those were the Democrats. Republicans had almost no rights at all. Ethical standards, critics say, were widely flouted.

"None of us are clamoring for a return to the 103rd Congress," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, referring to the last time Democrats were in charge. As a freshman Democrat then, Pomeroy said, he was "an abused member of the majority."

So bitter are the memories of some rank-and-file Democrats that Gephardt, who is in line to become speaker if his party regains control in the November elections, has signaled that he will likely retain many of the reforms enacted by the Republicans that were intended to dilute the power of committee chairmen.

The Democratic leader might not go so far as to adopt the Republicans' term limits for chairmen that have vastly altered the culture of the House.

But Gephardt says he wants to open the process further than Republicans did, by including the minority party in the day-to-day operation of the House, such as scheduling votes on legislation and setting the rules of debate.

"We want to be more bipartisan, more working with the minority" than the Republicans have been, Gephardt said recently.

"We didn't do enough, either, when we were in the majority. We need to correct that if we get the chance."

House Republicans say they are skeptical of such sweet talk from Democratic leaders.

They complain that the Democrats are refusing to cooperate in order to prevent the Republicans from scoring any legislative achievements that might help them in the elections.

"It would be very encouraging if it were credible," Rep. Dick Armey, the House majority leader, said of Gephardt's promises of a more bipartisan, more congenial House if the Democrats win it back.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who is in charge of transition planning for Gephardt, conceded that if the Democrats succeed in retaking the House, it "is not going to be easy" to persuade his colleagues to offer concessions to Republicans.

"There is among some of our older members a temptation for payback," Cardin observed.

Armey and his Republican colleagues say they are confident that the Democrats won't get the chance.

But with the elections more than six months away, polls suggest that the battle for the House could go either way.

What does seem clear is that neither party will be able to claim a majority large enough to operate the way the Democrats did during their 40-year reign, when they sometimes had 50 votes to spare.

"Those days are long gone," observed Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus.

Abusive autocracy

Lopsided majorities make it easier to enact legislation. But when they were combined under the Democrats with a seniority-based system led by committee chairmen, the result, many lawmakers say, was an autocracy that was abusive and sometimes corrupt.

Chairmen used proxy votes of committee members to secure support for legislation that was often written in private. Whole blocs of Democratic opponents, as well as Republicans, could be ignored while the bill was jammed through the House -- often protected by heavy-handed procedures, such as a ban on amendments.

At the same time, chairmen would be excused from casting politically delicate votes, while freshmen were compelled to toe the line. Pomeroy recalls that some unwilling freshmen Democrats who were subsequently defeated at the polls helped provide the margin of victory for President Clinton's tax-increase bill of 1993, while some committee chairmen took a pass.

Secrecy and scandals

Meanwhile, the last years of Democratic rule were marked by scandals bred in a climate of secrecy.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.