In Modern Politics, It’s Open Season on Congressional Leaders

Posted October 7, 2005 at 3:03pm

Once upon a time, there was a Congress. And that Congress was made up of leaders and followers. The most important among them were the majority leaders, their whips and, in the House of Representatives, the Speaker. [IMGCAP(1)]

And the leaders were powerful men (yes, Virginia, they were always men in the old days) who marshalled their troops on the floor much the way generals led their soldiers into battle. And the leaders were safe in the knowledge that they were invulnerable at home, let alone on Capitol Hill.

Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Well, it is, at least these days.

Party leaders in the past have faced revolts in their caucuses or been defeated at the polls, but I doubt there has ever been a time when members of the Congressional leadership had as huge a bull’s-eye painted on their backs as they do now.

The recent indictments of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay make the Texas Republican only the latest in a long list of legislative leaders to be driven from their posts.

Over the past two decades, the list includes Texas Democrat Jim Wright, California Democrat Tony Coelho, Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, Louisiana Republican Bob Livingston, Mississippi Republican Trent Lott and now DeLay.

Wright announced in the summer of 1989 that he would resign as Speaker and from Congress after the House ethics committee charged him with violating 69 rules, while Coelho resigned his post as Majority Whip (and his House seat) in May 1989 following multiple allegations of financial improprieties.

Gingrich left the Speakership after the 1998 elections following two disappointing elections for the GOP and extensive ethics problems of his own, while Livingston’s tenure as Speaker ended before it officially began after his personal life became an issue. Lott stepped down when he complimented Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) in a way that offended people who were looking to be offended.

And if opponents can’t drive you out by embarrassing you or by bringing legal action, they can always go after you politically, as Republicans did when they used all of their resources (nationally, not just in the state) to unseat South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, who was serving as Senate Minority Leader when he was defeated for re-election last fall. Daschle’s defeat followed then-House Speaker Tom Foley’s (D-Wash.) by 10 years.

Being in the legislative leadership in either chamber now means that you are a high value target to the opposition. Take down the leader, and you can discredit his or her party, or at least create the sense that the opposition is in disarray.

Successful Republican redistricting efforts in Texas to eliminate Martin Frost’s district don’t quite fall into the same category as partisan efforts to take down Daschle, DeLay or Lott, but it’s relevant nonetheless.

Frost, a former two-term chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, lost bids to move up into his party’s leadership and was only a member of his party’s rank and file when he went down to defeat. But he was one of the politically savvier Democrats in the House (and in Texas), and his smarts and effectiveness made him a Republican target.

DeLay’s indictment and resignation from the House Republican leadership isn’t the end of liberal and Democratic efforts to cut the head off of the GOP legislative operation. Now a new person has that target painted on his back.

Barely 24 hours after DeLay resigned his leadership post I received an e-mail “backgrounder” from the office of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the Rules Committee, with an ominous headline: “Getting to know the new Interim Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-MO).”

Among the items in the e-mail were “Blunt does favors for son-turned-tobacco-lobbyist,” “Blunt has close ties to lobbyist under federal investigation,” “Blunt secures ethics waiver after marrying tobacco lobbyist,” and “Blunt uses lobbyists as de facto whips to pass corporate tax cut.”

This wouldn’t be the first time, of course, that political opponents tried to make an issue out of a wife who also was a lobbyist. Some Republicans raised questions about Daschle’s lobbyist wife, Linda Daschle. The names and the parties change, but the indignation, innuendo and outrage somehow seem to be the same.

Blunt isn’t the only member of the current GOP legislative leadership who is a target. In the Senate, Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) faces a difficult re-election, and Democrats know that Santorum’s defeat would rattle his party, impress the media and get more attention than any other Senate victory.

And after Blunt and Santorum? It depends on who moves into the Republican leadership in the House and Senate next Congress. Whoever they are, they automatically are targets.

The same goes for Democratic leaders. DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) are particularly obvious targets — Reid because his role as party leader could open him up to criticism back home, and Emanuel because he is smart, effective and hails from Chicago (where cronyism and corruption are not unknown in political circles).

Having all the power and prestige that go with being a legislative powerhouse must be fun and rewarding. But it’s also increasingly dangerous. And that’s something for ambitious politicians in both parties to think about.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.