A Day Gone By: These Members Should Be Emulated

Posted July 15, 2003 at 4:41pm

Congress did a wonderful thing last week. (It is so nice to be able to start a piece with that sentence.) In a beautiful ceremony, the first Congressional Distinguished Service Awards were given to four former House Members, exemplars of public service — Republicans John Rhodes (Ariz.) and Bob Michel (Ill.), and Democrats Don Edwards (Calif.) and Louis Stokes (Ohio). These awards, the joint brainchild of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), are a terrific way of honoring great former lawmakers and underscoring the values and qualities current lawmakers ought to emulate. [IMGCAP(1)]

For next year, I already have my favorites: Reps. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.), an equal to the estimable late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) for erudition, brains, breadth and seriousness of purpose; Bill Clinger (R-Pa.), a wonderful and thoughtful master legislator who also led the House Wednesday Group through its most significant years; Bob Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), who for decades threw his brains, judiciousness and energies into constructing and managing America’s policies toward patents and trademarks, a critically important issue at home and in the global economy but one with no visible political payoff; and Abner Mikva (D-Ill.), whose career has included stints as White House counsel and federal appeals court judge — a remarkable trifecta of public service.

I have been privileged to know all four of the current winners. Why were they chosen? The four represent widely different ideologies, backgrounds and interests. They are very different people but share some important personality traits — all are warm, modest (for political powerhouses), decent and admirable. All treasured their service in Congress and treasure the institution itself. All could mix it up and be tough partisans, but none used cheap shots or flamboyant tricks to make their points. All four knew where the lines were and never crossed them.

I met Don Edwards when I first came to the House as an American Political Science Association Congressional fellow in 1969. I worked for my hometown Congressman, Don Fraser (D) of Minneapolis. He was a member of a loosely configured collection known as “The Group.” Edwards was one; others included the late Phil Burton (D-Calif.), the late Ben Rosenthal (D-N.Y.), Kastenmeier and Mikva.

Widely different in personal style, they were all remarkable legislators. Burton, as brilliant a politician as I have ever encountered, was gruff, blustery and profane. By contrast, his fellow Californian, Edwards, was urbane, polite and soft-spoken. But both had backbones of steel. Edwards became the leading Congressional champion of civil liberties, a former FBI agent who was not afraid to take on the FBI when it overstepped its bounds. He was a classic Congressional workhorse, not interested in personal aggrandizement, driven by ideas and principle.

John Rhodes showed his talents early, moving expeditiously into the ranks of leadership. When then-Rep. Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) went to the White House as vice president in 1974, Rhodes moved from Policy Committee chairman to replace Ford as Minority Leader. He was a strong, conscientious leader for eight years. But any subsequent stories about his leadership were dominated by Watergate, which engulfed him as soon as he took the post. As any leader would, Rhodes defended Nixon tenaciously, but when the evidence developed that showed Nixon could not sustain his position, he went to the White House with other GOP leaders and convinced him to resign.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Rhodes had a taste of majority status during his freshman term in the 83rd Congress. He grew increasingly frustrated at the near-perpetual minority status of his party and wrote a scathing, book-length critique of the shortcomings and pitfalls of an institution led by an arrogant and smug majority that, while polemical, was also analytical and insightful. (The leaders of the House majority today would benefit from reading it.) But Rhodes, an institutionalist who loves the legislative process, grew weary of permanent partisan wrangling and left his leadership post voluntarily in 1981, leaving Congress itself two years later. He has remained a presence on the Hill, actively involved in the Association of Former Members of Congress, among other things, until sidetracked by his recent battles with cancer.

Stokes also served 30 years in Congress, from 1968 on. His moment of national attention came when he headed up the Congressional investigation into the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. But to Congress-watchers, he was a classic appropriator. Now to Bob Novak, there could be no worse epithet (except maybe “liberal appropriator”). But sophisticated students of Congress know that most of the effective oversight done in Congress is done by appropriations subcommittees. We know that while the Appropriations Committee is no longer the fierce anti-spending guardian of the purse that it was under Reps. Clarence Cannon (D-Mo.) and John Taber (D-N.Y.) a half-century ago, its members care about the programs they fund and are careful with the money they appropriate for them. Stokes did the committee and its traditions proud.

On to Bob Michel. Michel served 38 years in the House. He succeeded Rhodes as Republican leader and served in that role for 14 years — just missing out by a single Congress on his goal of becoming Speaker. Michel was a strong leader and a strong voice for his party — and an even stronger voice for the Congress itself. Just as important, anyone who knew Michel saw a class act as a human being. I have never known anyone more decent or more dedicated to public service.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the zeitgeist of the House Republican Party had changed, driven by frustration at decades of minority status. Even moderates who had worked with Democrats on tax or health policy became radicalized. The Gang of Seven — rebels willing to break china, throw bombs and wear paper bags over their heads on the House floor — were more admired than disdained. For Michel, the signs of change were clear from the moment Newt Gingrich succeeded Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) as Minority Whip. Michel’s successor, Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who has inherited both Michel’s seat and his status as a quality legislator, defined Michel as “the best Speaker the House never had.” To Michel fans, it is a damn shame he never had the chance to shine in that role.

For the past several months, I have worked closely with Michel on the Continuity of Government Commission. What a pleasure! He has been characteristically conscientious and insightful, never wavering from the goal of doing the right thing for Congress and the American people — even as he has coped with the difficulty of his wife Corrine’s illness.

The House is and always has been a partisan place — parties, if unmentioned in the Constitution, are an integral part of Congress. And politics in the House is not beanbag — it is and always has been rough-and-tumble. But those of us who both love Congress and are neither naive about politics nor unrealistic about the “good old days” have nevertheless felt increasingly depressed about the place. The gap between the parties is greater than I have ever seen it; the House seethes with animosity and with ideological discord. To be sure, there are many decent and capable Members of the House. But the fact is that the institution today is way less than the sum of its parts.

Governing is tough with a slim majority. But leaders of both parties should look at the qualities of leadership that made Bob Michel and John Rhodes respected by their peers, successors and everybody else who interacts with Congress and work hard to change the atmosphere in the House. Republican leaders can start small — by eliminating petty insults like denying a meeting room for the minority party to caucus. Such things are foolish and unnecessary and ultimately will come back to haunt.

And rank-and-file Members of both parties should study the lives and careers of these four: good people who did not demonize their opponents or adversaries, who combined partisan spirit and philosophical principles with respect for debate and reverence for Congress and the legislative process. We do have a number of partnerships in the current House that show it is still possible to balance partisan roles with broader partnerships; consider Reps. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) on pension reform and other issues, and the longstanding relationship between Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on process and reform matters. We could use lots more.