House Republicans completed the tumultuous process of organizing for the 109th Congress last week with the party’s leadership flexing its muscle in some areas while being forced to give ground in others.
After a week that began with an attempt to significantly alter the ethics process and ended with the abrupt removal of a sitting chairman, many observers and critics argued that House Republican leaders had systematically tightened their grip on the GOP Conference.
But several lawmakers and senior aides disputed that interpretation of the organizational process, contending that the changes made — and not made — showed that the leadership still takes its cues from the will of the Members, rather than the reverse.
On one level, the leadership sent a clear message about the importance of party loyalty by summarily dismissing Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) from the chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee two years before his term was set to expire.
But Republican leaders were not able to get everything they wanted last week. They were forced to pare down proposed changes to the ethics process when some rank-and-file Members threatened to oppose them, and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) pushed to reverse a change in the so-called “indictment rule” after it had prompted considerable unease within the Conference.
Some argued that the party was entitled to make real changes to chairmanships, committee jurisdictions and chamber rules, given that the GOP came out of the November elections with more House seats than it has had in several generations.
“We’ve done things to reflect the majority and reflect the election,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.). “Members are content with the leadership and the idea that the leadership reflects the Membership.”
On the surface, the replacement of Smith with Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) at the helm of Veterans Affairs was the clearest indication that the Republican leadership intended to crack down on lawmakers who did not toe the party line.
Despite a blunt warning during the Steering process two years ago, Smith continued to clash with party leaders throughout the 108th Congress on veterans spending levels.
But while GOP leaders, led by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), made their displeasure with Smith clear, Members and aides argued that there was widespread sentiment throughout the entire Conference to remove him from his chairmanship.
“There will definitely be a perception out there that you need to be a team player if you want to succeed,” said a leadership aide. “You don’t need to be beholden to the leadership so much as to the Conference at large.”
GOP sources say the Steering Committee vote for Buyer was nearly unanimous. While the leadership has a strong say in Steering’s actions, the panel also includes chairmen, regional representatives and some junior Members.
Some Members contended that Buyer’s victory had as much to do with the Indiana lawmaker’s vision for the future of the Veterans’ panel as it did with Smith’s past performance.
“The changes that were made were based on presentation and visions that were totally persuasive to the Steering Committee as a whole,” said a member of the GOP selection panel.
Steering’s other major decision last week was to choose Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) to take over the Appropriations Committee.
The decision to pick the popular Lewis over the other two contenders, Reps. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) and Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), did not necessarily reflect the increased power of leadership.
“Lewis is a pretty independent guy,” said a senior GOP leadership aide. “He’s not someone [the leadership] can just walk all over.”
But the fact that all three men committed themselves to reformist agendas did indicate a desire to cater to the wishes of leadership.
Last month, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) floated a proposal to reduce the number of Appropriations subcommittees from 13 to 10 and to shuffle the panels’ jurisdictions. A few weeks later, all three candidates for the chairmanship professed to be reformers, agreeing that the committee on which they had long served needed a shakeup.
Yet again, while DeLay and other leaders have stressed the importance of changing the Appropriations process, those views are also held by a significant number of rank and file Republican lawmakers.
“The assessment that [the three candidates] were playing to a particular audience and not a widespread one is inaccurate,” said a Republican leadership aide.
On the ethics front, the leadership certainly appeared to be strengthening its hand last month, when the Conference moved to change its rules so that a member of the elected leadership would no longer have to step down automatically if indicted on a felony charge.
The new rule was designed to protect DeLay, whose activities during the 2002 Texas state legislative elections are being scrutinized by a grand jury in Austin.
The change went through on a voice vote despite the misgivings of many Republican lawmakers who worried that it would make the party appear indifferent to charges of impropriety.
But after some Members openly complained about the change and Republicans took a beating in the press, DeLay himself moved last week to reverse the change and reinstate the old rule.
Republican leaders were also forced to back off of another ethics-related move last week.
After DeLay was repeatedly admonished by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct last year for allegedly bringing “discredit” on the House without breaking any specific law or rule, Hastert and other leaders sought to prevent the ethics panel from taking such action in the future.
But Hastert was forced to withdraw the proposed change when it became clear that enough Republicans opposed it to potentially defeat the rules package on the House floor, proving that even having a bigger majority won’t ensure that the leadership will get its way.
“We just didn’t have the votes,” said a senior Republican lawmaker.