Skip to content

The Perils of Misunderestimation

Narrow Majorities, New Rules Will Pose Challenges For the White House and Both Parties in Congress

Have you ever driven with anybody whose modus operandi is to accelerate, then brake sharply, then accelerate, then brake sharply, and so on? Was it your spouse? (I withdraw the last question, your honor.) If you have ever had that go-and-stop, go-and-stop experience, you are prepared for the 108th Congress. The House and Senate are two very, very different bodies; the early maneuvers of Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate suggest they will seek to play out the 108th Congress in radically different ways. In most cases, the House will be the heavy foot on the gas pedal, and the Senate will be the power brake. [IMGCAP(1)]

In the House, the big story as Congress opened was the package of rules changes the majority Republicans rammed through the body as it organized in its first week. The ethics changes, not surprisingly, got the most attention — no great shock, since the Gingrich Revolution had been fostered as much as anything by a challenge to the Democratic House as ethically challenged, and a GOP pledge to clean up the act. Second on the attention-getting list, also not surprisingly, was the removal of term limits for the Speakership and for top leaders of the Intelligence Committee, along with a relaxation of the term limit on the Budget Committee chairman — term limits being another of the angry populist movements Republicans exploited in 1994 before diluting in 2003.

But it was other changes that got little or no attention that are the most significant. There is the return of the Gephardt Rule. For decades, Republicans used regular votes on the debt limit to make Democrats (and, occasionally, Republican presidents) miserable to make their point against runaway government spending. When Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) instituted a rule bypassing debt-limit votes, Republicans screamed bloody murder. Now, for a Republican majority with a Republican president, the Gephardt Rule has renewed appeal.

That is not all, however. Republicans expedited scheduling votes under suspension of the rules, making “killer amendments” more difficult to offer; they made it harder to force conferees to accept instructions when conference committees are deadlocked; they restricted the right to offer funding-limitation amendments on matters dealing with tariffs and trade. All these changes are intended to restrict the ability of the minority party (and, in some cases, of renegade Members of the majority) to offer alternatives or bollix up the works.

There is one other interesting change made by House Republicans, involving proxy voting in committees. Proxy voting was one of the major bugaboos of Republicans against Democrats when the latter ruled the House. Time after time, Republicans would lose votes when they had more Members present in the room, as Democratic committee or subcommittee chairmen would pull out a few pieces of paper — proxies from absent Members — and brush their apparent victories aside. Republicans abolished the practice when they took over, but have discovered the difficulty of operating when you have a slender majority and your Members are spread thinner than the minority’s.

The GOP leaders have resisted reinstating proxies, despite the efforts of some of their chairmen. But they have dealt with the problem in more subterranean ways. Committees can now adopt a rule that allows committee and subcommittee chairmen to postpone votes almost indefinitely when a recorded vote has been ordered, to avoid embarrassing losses and to reschedule when they can be sure they have the votes. This means we will end up having clusters of votes divorced entirely from the debate that induced them (not exactly meeting deliberative ideals), and with chairmen having a huge incentive to manipulate the timing of large numbers of votes to disadvantage the minority.

It is easy to call Republicans hypocritical; after all, given their rhetoric of the late 1980s and early 1990s, they are. But their actions are also a reflection of the reality that exists for a majority party in a legislative setting — it will always seek to use its majority status and control of the rules, especially if its margin is slender, to maximum advantage. It is also as easy today to call the Republican majority arrogant as it was to call the Democratic majority arrogant in the early ’90s. But if it took Democrats a few decades to enrage and radicalize the minority Republicans, it has taken Republicans only a few years to have that impact on the minority Democrats. They will use every weapon at their disposal, including annoying delaying tactics like calling for the reading of the journal, for catharsis if nothing else. And like Republicans in their minority days, they will get rolled repeatedly.

House Republicans have made these changes for two reasons: because they can, and because they know the dynamic on the other side of the Capitol will be radically different. We saw how different with the Senate’s remarkable fandango over its organization. Unlike the House, the Senate is a continuing body with at least two-thirds of its Members carrying over from one election and one Congress to the next. Until an organizing resolution, including many elements built into the rules, is implemented, the previous Congress’ resolution applies, leaving in this case Democrats wielding committee and subcommittee gavels and new Members without committee assignments.

Democrats were willing to hold up the organization of the new Senate until they got guarantees of staff and resource allocations to their liking. They knew that the public would focus no attention whatsoever on an arcane dispute over organization, that the issue would be portrayed as the functional equivalent of kids fighting over the prime spots in the sandbox, and that, ultimately, to get their agenda moving before losing all momentum, the Republicans would have to give in.

The minority Democrats held the cards. They needed the expertise that a near-even distribution of committee staff resources will provide at a time when they have lost the access they had to the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Tax Committee, and face the firepower of OMB, DOD and other superheavyweight executive agencies and bureaus. And they wanted to make the point, to the White House, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and everyone else, that they are not to be ignored, and cannot be railroaded or run over in the same fashion as their House counterparts. The leverage that comes to a minority party in the Senate, to block action, constipate the process and kill initiatives, is formidable.

This minority clout in the Senate will force House Republican leaders to exercise their own clout and ability to trample on the rights and voices of the minority even more regularly and brazenly. It contributed as well to the deliberate moves by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to bypass seniority on several of their committee leadership posts, to centralize control over Appropriations subcommittee chairmanships, and to send a clear signal to their rank-and-file Members of the deleterious consequences of party disloyalty. They will be tempted even more to avoid compromise, ignore the center, and put the pedal to the metal in the far-right lane, passing bills on pure party-line votes to get as much leverage as they can with the Senate. Senate Democrats, in turn, will be tempted to use their leverage to delay and stymie Senate Republicans (and the White House), to force compromise or a movement to the left of center to get their own leverage with the House.

The White House and Republican Congressional leaders have indicated frequently to reporters that they are looking to a budget reconciliation bill as the cure-all for Senate obstinacy; under reconciliation, of course, no filibuster is allowed and the hurdle shifts to a simple majority, 50 instead of 60 votes. In reconciliation, and on the issues that Democrats cannot or will not filibuster, the burden shifts to those Democrats, especially with their presidential contenders AWOL regularly during the year. We will no doubt find many outcomes like that last week on the Clean Air Act standards, where Republicans won (in that case, 50-46) but would lose or be forced to haul out Vice President Cheney for a tie-breaking vote if the White House wannabes and other absentees had been there. At 60, the burden is on Republicans; remember that cloture is not invoked with three-fifths of those present and voting, but with 60 votes. Absentees or not, Republicans will need to keep all their membership in line and voting, and still corral at least nine Democratic Senators, to break a filibuster.

As for reconciliation (a topic I’ll address at greater length in a subsequent column, especially after I consult with budget gurus like Allen Schick and Stan Collender and rules gurus like Bob Dove), Republicans have an opportunity and a challenge. To use it for something like the tax cut or for a prescription drug benefit, they will have to navigate around the Byrd rule, no simple task. In other ways, they will have to find a balance, incorporating some priorities (perhaps including drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) without making it so top-heavy that it sinks of its own weight. In any event, it will not be an all-purpose panacea.

The political climate as President Bush prepares his State of the Union message is dramatically different from the one he enjoyed in November, after a stunning election performance. Now he is on the defensive on Iraq and North Korea, has seen his approval rating drop to human levels in the mid-50s, has been forced to backtrack on a plan to pare emergency-room coverage for Medicaid recipients and to push out a controversial appointment to the AIDS commission, and is scrambling to build support for his economic plan.

But it would be as foolish to assume this week’s political climate will continue as it was to assume after the November elections and the return to united government that Bush would run roughshod over Congress and get what he wanted. It will be a long, hard slog, requiring supple and creative strategies for both chambers, and especially creative efforts in conference committees. Don’t, as he would say, misunderestimate George W. Bush and his White House and Congressional team. But don’t misunderestimate the difficulty, the greater difficulty, of making policy with united government and slender majorities.

Recent Stories

Eight questions for elections in five states on Tuesday

Paul Pelosi attacker sentenced to 30 years in prison

House Over-slight Committee — Congressional Hits and Misses

Biden kicks off outreach to Black voters as protest threat looms at Morehouse

Editor’s Note: Stock market no panacea for Biden, Democrats

Photos of the week ending May 17, 2024