Nine months into her new role as Speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has shown that when it comes to the operation and administration of the House of Representatives, she and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) have more in common than she’d probably feel comfortable admitting.
Though they reside at very different ends of the political spectrum, Pelosi is, by and large, operating the institutional functions of the House under a system that originally was designed by Gingrich and put in place during the first nine months of his Speakership. It was a system that sought to emphasize professionalism over politics when it comes to running “the people’s House” while at the same time concentrating more power over administrative issues in the Speaker’s office.
Of course, there were times when House operations didn’t live up to Gingrich’s grand vision of pure professionalism and nonpartisanship. (For example, the House’s first-ever Chief Administrative Officer, a position created by Gingrich, left under a cloud of scandal less than two years after being appointed.) And today, Pelosi certainly is pursuing her own vision when it comes to policy initiatives like her much-touted Green the Capitol Initiative. But the past nine months have not seen the institutional upheaval that took place during the spring and summer of 1995, when Gingrich created one new House office position, reshuffled the duties of other administrative posts and even renamed the House Administration Committee to better reflect his vision for how that panel should operate.
An Appetite for Change
In the wake of the House Bank and Post Office scandals of the early 1990s, Speaker-elect Gingrich approached his new leadership duties with a notion that House operations had become entirely too political, according to Dan Meyer, who served as chief of staff for Gingrich during the 1995 transition and now serves as the White House’s chief House lobbyist.
“Newt’s primary goal was to professionalize the operations of the House,” Meyer said in a recent interview. “While a lot of Democrats wouldn’t acknowledge it, Newt in his heart was an institutionalist when it came to the House of Representatives. Though he thought it was an institution that needed some reform.”
Before Gingrich, the House Administration Committee had been known as one of the most partisan panels in Congress. Gingrich set out to change that image, Meyer said, and under his reorganization plan the panel became the House Oversight Committee.
The chairman of the new Oversight panel would be appointed by Gingrich, and the membership would include five Republicans and three Democrats. Though Democrats argued the panel became even more partisan under the new structure, Gingrich envisioned that the panel would make policy recommendations to the Speaker and concentrate on oversight, leaving the day-to-day management of the chamber to the administrative offices, which include the new Chief Administrative Officer.
Under Gingrich’s plan the CAO replaced the director of Non-Legislative and Financial Services, which was itself a failed attempt to bring professional management to the House in the wake of the Bank and Post Office scandals.
“It was a much different time,” said current CAO Dan Beard, whom Pelosi picked in January to be her point man on House operations. After 12 years working for various Members on the Hill, Beard was serving as the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation in the Interior Department during Gingrich’s 1995 transition. At that time, “there was a real appetite and I think a compelling case that was made that there ought to be significant changes in the operation of the House and its institutional structure,” Beard said. “There was a real desire on Speaker Gingrich’s part to make significant changes and to separate himself and his majority from the way the institution had operated in the past.”
Since taking over the House, Beard said, the new Democratic majority has focused not so much on systemic changes but rather an alteration of what goals the House as an institution would pursue during the 110th Congress.
“Mrs. Pelosi asked me to look at the Greening effort and I did, she’s asked me to look at [better managing] the House day care center,” said Beard, who also has been tasked with developing more standardized benefits and leave packages for House employees across various offices.
“For the most part there was no feeling that you needed to make significant changes in the operation of the House,” Beard said. “The Speaker really left the House officers in a very stable way.”
Pelosi did replace former CAO Jay Eagen and former Clerk of the House Karen Haas when she took over as Speaker, but she waited to do so until mid-February. Meanwhile, in a highly unusual move, she asked Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood to stay on as head of security for the House chamber. Livingood was lured away from the Secret Service by Gingrich to run House security during the 1995 transition.
“I think the driving force with this transition, what was really driving the agenda was not so much, ‘We’re going to straighten up this place,’ which it was in ’94,” Beard said. “People recognized that the changes that took place as a result of 1994, many of them were very good changes.”
But the lack of massive administrative upheaval at the start of the 110th Congress should not be construed to mean Democrats were completely enamored with how Republicans had run the House during their tenure in the majority.
Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who was tapped by Pelosi in November to lead the Democrats’ day-to-day transition into the majority, said in an interview last month: “I am absolutely convinced that we inherited a whole bunch of turf problems on administrative issues.”
For example, Capuano pointed to confusion over internal responsibility for House Internet access and noted that the chamber’s franking handbook is “antiquated” and has “nothing to do with the way the world is today.” In February, Democrats moved to revamp the House Administration Committee (as it was renamed in 1999) to add a subcommittee on Capitol security and another on elections.
Meanwhile, Capuano said House Administration’s actions and its Republican leaders over the past decade did not live up to Gingrich’s vision for nonpartisan House operations.
“Democrats were specifically cut out of House Administration for 10 years,” said Capuano, who was first elected in 1998 and currently serves on House Administration.
Republicans “have always been certainly much better than me in coming up with nice little catchphrases like, ‘Let’s professionalize’” the CAO’s office, Capuano said. “But what good does it do if you so-called ‘professionalize’ and yet in reality you politicize it more than anybody?
“I’m sure they did some things that were worth doing,” Capuano added. “I have no doubt about that, and I wouldn’t deny it. But I’m also sure that those things would have been in the normal course of events anyway. And I’m also sure that we are currently doing some good things as well. The fact that we’re not beating our chests and saying that in the last 10 years the Republicans did nothing right and everything evil and all Republicans have to leave office and we’re only going to hire Democratic partisans, I personally think should be to our credit.”
Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who helped lead Gingrich’s transition in 1995 and, after serving as chairman of the House Administration Committee in the 109th Congress, now serves as the panel’s ranking member, disagreed with Capuano’s assessment of the condition of the House when Republicans handed over the Speaker’s gavel.
“The difference was when we came in in 1995 there was a very strong patronage system,” Ehlers said. “A great many of the House employees had their job by virtue of a friendship with a Democratic Member of Congress or having worked on a campaign with a Democratic Member of Congress. We basically got rid of that. The people under the House administrative committee and under Dan Beard were there by virtue of merit rather than by virtue of friendship with a Member.”
Ehlers pointed out that it was the Republicans who created and passed the Congressional Accountability Act, the landmark bill that for the first time applied 12 civil rights, labor and workplace safety and health laws to Congress and its agencies.
“We certainly tried to make it a merit-based system with proper procedures,” Ehlers said. “We passed laws so that we had to follow the same personnel rules that every other company in the United States had to follow. That was a big change and that was something that didn’t have to be done this time around.”
By Ehlers’ estimation, Pelosi is trying to clean up what she views as corruption that existed under Republicans, but it is a corruption of individuals such as disgraced former Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Mark Foley (R-Fla.) — not the institution.
“Republicans under Gingrich were trying to clean up corruption, which was more seriously a functional problem. … Under the Democrats [in the early 1990s] it was more of an institutional problem,” Ehlers explained. “Both of them are saying they are trying to clean up the messes they received, but Gingrich felt there was a need for a revolution. Pelosi’s [transition] was not a revolution, it was more a traditional change of parties.”