Ornstein: Conable Was One of Congress’ Greatest

Posted December 9, 2003 at 9:15am

As this year in Congress comes mercifully to its end, many subjects were tantalizing for the year-end column.

I could write more about the disgraceful three-hour vote in the House, abrogating the norms by a wide margin — including the astonishing comment on radio by Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) that he saw nothing wrong with holding a vote open for days, not just hours. At least host Mark Bisnow said it was Dreier; it sounded nothing like the institutionalist I have known for nearly 25 years, but like a man willing to forget everything he said and knew for 20 of those years about the integrity of the House as an institution. I will give Dreier and the House Republicans some considerable slack for the very tight partisan margins under which they operate. But tight margins are not a license to stretch every rule and kill every norm repeatedly.

But frankly, writing at length about this set of issues means reflecting at length on the depressing qualities of the current House. Instead, there is another, more compelling, and despite the sorrow, more uplifting topic: Barber Conable. Last week, the former Republican Representative from New York died in Sarasota, Fla., at age 81 of complications from a staph infection. [IMGCAP(1)]

Let me say this without equivocation: We lost a lawmaker who was as good as any Member of the House in my lifetime. I have been kicking around the House for almost 35 years (before serving in Congress was even a gleam in David Dreier’s eye). I have known hundreds of Members of the House. Many were and are heroes of public service. Barber was to the House as Michael Jordan was to the NBA. In his depth and breadth, his adherence to philosophical principle and understanding of how give-and-take works in the legislative process, in his brilliance and erudition, in his speech and written word, in his reverence for the institution and understanding of history, in his humor and general decency, Barber was the Real Deal.

Barber had the misfortune of spending his entire 20 years in the House, from 1965 to 1985, in the minority; it finally ground him down enough to make him give up the job. During his 20 years, despite his minority status, he was a major player in tax and trade policy, and the major mover behind revenue sharing during the Nixon years. The frustration of minority status was not alleviated when Republican presidents were in the White House; Ronald Reagan, in particular, negotiated more with swing Democrats in the House and took his own Republicans for granted. Thus, Reagan’s pivotal tax cut, known as Conable/Hance for Barber and Texas Democrat Kent Hance, had little input from Conable and much more from White House dickering with Hance, although Barber, the good soldier, defended and promoted it to the hilt.

Barber had a good and cordial relationship with Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), even though Rostenkowski rarely brought him into the inner circle of negotiations and ignored most of his views and amendments (to the detriment often of the legislative product). Back then, I regularly harangued the Democrats about the stupidity of shutting Republicans out of the deliberative process. From about year 25 on into their 40-year dominance of the House, Democrats’ aloofness and arrogance of power made them often immune to those arguments. But it must be said that Rosty never dissed Barber, never shut him out of a conference, and tried to build dialogue and camaraderie on the committee through his groundbreaking regular retreats, to which he also invited conservative and liberal economists for open dialogue.

So what made Barber Conable the Michael Jordan of the House? During his tenure, his principled conservatism (he sometimes ignored Democrats’ invitations to join with him on legislation because the product would not measure up to his ideological standards), intellect, legislative acumen and personality made him a dominant figure. Steve Hofman, who as staff director to the House Wednesday Group knew Barber well, has said that there were two members of the Republican Conference who brought the Conference to a halt when they stood — Conable and Dick Cheney (Wyo.). When either of them spoke, all their colleagues wanted to listen. That was true of Democrats too.

But Barber brought something else to the table. He was a consummate legislator, a student of history and a true institutionalist. He regularly wrote remarkable astute and insightful newsletters back to his constituents, rivaling those of his Senate colleague Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). After he left Congress, he came to the American Enterprise Institute for a period of time to turn those missives into a book — which, had he completed it, would have been a classic in political science. But public service called him back to head up the World Bank.

Few Members are comfortable simultaneously dealing with the nitty-gritty of politics and the detail of legislating; fewer still are comfortable at the same time with a broad understanding of their own institution and its place in the constitutional firmament and in history. Barber was one of those precious few. My profound disappointment with the current House — with a Speaker who for more than two years reacted passively to the threat to the institution’s fundamental existence from terrorists and who has trouble balancing his role as a partisan with that of Speaker of the whole body; with a host of Members who can’t adjust appropriately, maturely and with any balance to the role of majority (and many, for that matter, who can’t easily handle being in the minority) — has been colored by my knowing, loving and respecting Barber Conable. God, I wish we had a dozen Conables in the House now — or even a half-dozen who could simply aspire to that role. It would be a much better place.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.