Minority Report

Ignored by their President, ill-used by their Democratic colleagues, House Republicans are in a mutinous mood


ON WEDNESDAY, May 1, the casual TV-channel-switcher who came across C-SPAN was treated to the closest thing to Dallas that public-affairs television has yet had. As the House of Representatives prepared to install Democrat Frank McCloskey in the disputed seat for the Eighth Congressional District of Indiana, Republican tempers boiled over, and rank vitriol rose from the House floor, where exaggerated courtesies usually prevail. “You know how to win votes the old-fashioned way, Mr. Speaker,” Bob McEwen, of Ohio, said. “You steal them.” Georgia’s Newt Gingrich accused the Democrats of having a “leadership of thugs.” Other Republicans referred to their Democratic counterparts as “corrupt” and “rotten.” The House Republican leader, Bob Michel, said, “Might does not make right.” This case, he charged, “is but one example of a consistent abuse and misuse of power by the majority.” A colleague said this was, “plain and simple, a rape.” After the debate Republicans stormed out of the chamber en bloc. A few of the younger, more passionate members vowed to take drastic action, such as chaining themselves to the House podium or linking arms outside the chamber entrance to prevent anyone from entering. Republican Sherwood Boehlert, of New York, took to the floor after the Indiana election dispute to lament the problem. “Twenty-one years ago, in April, 1964,” he said, “I came to this institution as a young staff member. There was a magic about the House, a real luster. But there has been a change. Somehow the magic is slowly evaporating. The luster is gradually tarnishing right before our own eyes. There is a dark cloud hanging over this chamber. The tolerance level is going down, down, and down. Motives are being questioned. Integrity is being challenged. Name-calling is rampant. Emotionalism is at a fever pitch, with all too frequently nasty results. Mr. Speaker, it is time for all of us to do a little soul-searching. Clearly, and sadly, the House is out of order.”

Passions quickly faded and cooler heads—aware of what anarchy in the House would do to the Reagan program—prevailed. The floor rhetoric died down, and the House began to work, slowly but somewhat harmoniously, on the agendas of the nation and the President. But under the surface the emotions and tensions lingered. They still do.

Just after the July 4 recess, as freshman Joe Barton was walking down the center aisle of the House to cast a vote, he found himself in the middle of an angry crossfire of epithets between Democrat Marty Russo, of Illinois, and Republican John McCain, of Arizona. Seven-letter profanities escalated to twelve-letter ones and then to pushes and shoves before the two were separated.

Russo and McCain were wrangling over bitter complaints from Republicans that they had been deliberately “shortcounted” by the majority Democrats in the chair when they had asked for rollcall votes, an outrageous abuse of power which Democrats just as vehemently denied. Right before the July 4 break Dan Lungren, a Republican conservative, took to the floor to charge that Democratic Majority Leader Jim Wright had threatened to punch him and his colleague Bob Walker in the mouth when they complained about short-counting. Democrats previously had urged Bob Michel to curb his members’ obstructionist tactics and rhetoric on the House floor.

Little incidents like these keep popping up. None is serious or approximates the real physical conflict that was common in Congress in the nineteenth century. But each verbal threat or physical confrontation underscores the deep and bitter partisan tension that permeates the House.

In the heat of the moment Boehlert may have exaggerated, especially about the luster of the good old days. Partisan tension and minority frustration have been staples of Congress since its beginning, and certainly were during the Republicans’ long stretches of minority status in the 1950s and 1960s. it is never easy being in the minority, shut out of a major role in policy and lacking many of the ego-gratifying instruments—from committee gavels and extra staff members to network-television coverage— that devolve on those in power.

But fifteen or twenty years ago Republicans at least had some piece of the action. The power structure of the House was such that on most committees the chairman and the ranking minority member shared the major decision-making authority. There was a major and constructive policy role for senior Republicans to play, with such powerful models as John Byrnes, of Wisconsin, who was paired with Chairman Wilbur Mills on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and John ‘Taber, of New York, the Republican counterpart to Chairman Clarence Cannon on Appropriations. As one “old bull” of the House told me recently, “To a junior Republican there was something to look forward to, even if he wasn’t going to be in the majority. It wasn’t the same as being chairman, but it was the next best thing.”

That situation was scant comfort to the rank-and-file Democrats, who despite their majority status received only a tiny slice of the policy-making pie. They pushed and implemented the reforms of the 1970s designed to change that, stripping power and staff from senior committee chairmen and spreading them to the much larger number of subcommittee chairmen and back-bench majority members. In the process ranking minority members were denuded of power, and some of the major perks that had been available to the minority were eliminated.

That frustrating development for Republicans was not undone by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Democrats in the House were dismayed by a presidential campaign that focused on the House and especially Tip O’Neill, and an election in which they lost the White House, the Senate, and thirtythree seats in the House, leaving them as close as they had been in twenty-six years to losing their majority. The Democrats did not react by offering an olive branch or a share of power to their Republican counterparts. Instead, they tried to shore up their forces to withstand the Reagan-led assault. Among other attempts to exploit the House rules to their full advantage, the Democrats moved to exaggerate their number on key committees like Ways and Means and Budget, in order to give themselves a working majority and offset any defections by “boll weevil” Democrats. In the process they did the Republicans out of coveted seats, and provoked immediate and long-lasting outrage.

The Republican discontent was aggravated by benign neglect from the Reagan White House (which took the House minority for granted and paid more attention to the Republican-led Senate) and by the 1982 election, with its discouraging loss of twenty-six seats, which nearly wiped out the dramatic gains of the Reagan landslide two years earlier.

To a party wandering in the desert of the minority for thirty years with no oasis in sight, and burdened further by the indignities of lessened power and cavalier treatment by the majority and even by their own President, 1985 proved the final straw. When on January 3 Democrats refused to swear in Indiana Republican Rick McIntyre along with the other certified freshman election winners, putting the seat on hold for a recount, and then, four months later, declared Democrat Frank McCloskey the winner of the seat by four votes and moved to seat him, the Republicans exploded.

To some degree, talking to Democrats and Republicans on this subject is like reliving Rashomon. Each side has its own distinct point of view and interpretation of events—and the overlap is meager when it comes to the Indiana case. But there are some areas of agreement. One is that the situation has intensified in the past few years because of a deliberate strategy of confrontation on the part of a cadre of young Republicans.

FOR AS LONG as Republicans have been in the minority, they have been split between those who want to cooperate with the majority in the business of the House, passing legislation, and those who want to act more as a minority in the British model, staunchly opposing the viewpoint of the majority party and eschewing any alliances with its members. After 1982 the latter group, a collection of junior conservatives, led by Newt Gingrich, Vin Weber, Bob Walker, and Dan Lungren, under the banner of the “Conservative Opportunity Society” (COS), moved to the fore, aggressively bringing some new techniques to the old approach of opposition. A number of other Republicans, including moderates but also staunch conservatives—for example, Mickey Edwards, of Oklahoma—were openly unhappy with this avowedly confrontational approach, but that did not deter the COS band.

Televised on C-SPAN, they applied taunting parliamentary tactics and inflammatory and accusatory rhetoric on the House floor, hoping to drive the Democrats crazy and engender an overreaction. At the very least, their denunciations reached millions of cable-TV viewers.

They succeeded, certainly, in provoking a Democratic howl. In May of 1984 Speaker Tip O’Neill abruptly changed the rules governing camera coverage to minimize the C-SPAN impact of the COS team. O’Neill required the cameramen to pan the entire House floor, because the COS fulminations were normally delivered to an empty chamber. When Gingrich vehemently protested, the Speaker took to the House floor and angrily denounced Gingrich and his colleagues.

All of this left Republicans—even those with little affection for Gingrich—outraged over the high-handed behavior of the majority, and Democrats, in turn, outraged over the personal attacks and provocative tactics of the COS Republicans.

The Indiana debacle and Republican feelings about Democratic parliamentary shenanigans have provided some measure of vindication for Gingrich and the rest of the COS team, countering the disdain with which they have been viewed by many mainstream Republicans. Diverse points of view on policy don’t stand in the way of Republican unity when it comes to indignation about majority abuses of power. But many Republicans are troubled by their own feelings. Those who have close friendships with Democrats, and who have worked with them on policy solutions in subcommittees or committees, have to separate personal feelings from institutional ones. And most House Republicans remain very uneasy about using guerrilla tactics to disrupt the House; despite the enormous public and media attention paid to the Indiana affair, there was no great outpouring of public indignation. “Basically, we looked like a bunch of immature adolescents,”one Republican admitted to me.

Tom Tauke, a mild-mannered Iowa moderate, is a co-chairman of a new group of issue-oriented centrist and moderate Republicans in the House, called the 92 Group. It serves explicitly as a counterweight to the COS group. Its approach is low-key, but its aim, like that of the COS group, is a Republican majority (the 92 in the name refers to its goal of winning a majority by 1992). Tauke, too, seethes over the treatment accorded Republicans by the majority. About the Russo-McCain fracas he says, “ There were several times when Marty Russo was in the chair when he obviously and blatantly gave us short calls on votes.”But Tauke sees the problem in broader terms: “It’s an arrogance of pow - er. It basically has to do with long-term dominance. It’s their House, and has been for thirty years. They have no fear of being in the minority—and therefore, of limitations being put on their power. The Democrats don’t say, We’d better not do this to the Republicans, because they could retaliate and do the same thing to us when they win the majority.”

Tauke and the 92 Group don’t like guerrilla warfare as a strategy. As moderates, they want to see their party broaden its base and expand its tent in the House, for they believe that a majority in the House will come only if the Republican Party can comfortably embrace the kinds of people who get elected from Democratic districts in the Northeast and Midwest. But the thirty or so members are a distinct minority of the minority.

Dan Lungren, a brawny, hard-charging Long Beach conservative whose district includes part of Orange County, takes a different point of view. Lungren is a collection of opposites. He is as conservative and aggressive as any member of the House, and was a founding member of the COS team, but he is also institution-minded, and was a leader in the Judiciary Committee and on the House floor last year in trying to put together a compromise immigration bill. Lungren instinctively wants to work within the House but is passionately bitter over the Democrats and their tactics. To him the COS tactics of pushing for embarrassing roll-call votes on the House floor, using the votes to attack targeted Democratic incumbents, and employing harsh and personal rhetoric to provoke Democratic responses and engage C-SPAN viewers are legitimate hardball tactics. If Democrats express outrage over them, “methinks they doth protest too much,”Lungren says. “After all, they call the tune to which the House dances.”

But the Democratic tactics, including, he believes, regular short counts of Republican votes, abuse of proxy voting, the indignity of the McIntyre affair, and unfair committee and subcommittee assignments, are out of bounds. While much of Newt Gingrich’s behavior is simply strategic, Lungren visibly exudes real indignation. It is clear that Lungren’s feelings are in substantial part rooted in minority status; in the House he is a second-class citizen, and he can’t stand it. He won’t abide Democrats who rub that in through petty abuses of parliamentary procedure; neither will he be patronized. “Some Democrats have come up to me privately and said, What can we do for you? I said. It’s not up to you or anyone to do anything for me. I’m a member of Congress. I just want to have the same rules apply to everyone.”

Lungren is contemplating running for the Senate next year, in an uphill battle to win the nomination to take on Democrat Alan Cranston. It is a reflection, as much as anything, of his frustration with the House and with minority status; already several other bright young Republican leaders are contemplating bailing out for Senate or gubernatorial bids. Republicans who will remain in the House for the upcoming 100th Congress are concerned about losing good members out of frustration, concerned about a mass exodus after 1986.

Dick Cheney, of Wyoming, a White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford, is now the number-four House Republican leader (and heir apparent to the top post at some point in the future). He is not willing to concede that 1986 will be a bad election for the Republicans. But if historical patterns prevail, and if the potential for majority status is not achieved, Republican morale will sag even more. “Two things will happen,” Cheney says. “More incumbents will move on—retire, or run for another office—weakening our existing base, and we’ll have a harder time finding good candidates to come to Congress in the first place.”

Tom Tauke is even blunter. “Eightysix is critical. If there is a loss of seats like we had in eighty-two, a lot of our guys will leave—and that does it for us for the rest of the century. We don’t need to win seats—but we can’t lose any.”

IT IS THE NATURE of the House that members do not spend a great deal of time communicating their gripes in encounter sessions with opposing members. The job of a congressman is frenetic and fragmented; there is little time for reflection and no opportunity to stretch necessarily short attention spans. When members relax—for example, by working out or playing basketball in the House gym—they are by tradition offlimits for partisan conflict or discussion thereof. So House Democrats have not had intimate exposure to Republicans’ psychic pain. The Democrats tend to break down into four types: the hard partisans (“if the Republicans don’t like what’s going on, the hell with them”), the fight-fire-with-fire tacticians (“they started it, and we have to respond in kind for self-protection”), the oblivious (“I wasn’t aware that the Republicans felt that way”), and the institutionalists (“I’m concerned about the Republicans’ problems, and I worry about what will happen to the legislative process”).

Even the institutionalists have limited sympathy for the Republicans’ plight— at least in part because they feel they have their own problems. “Sure I sympathize with the Republicans,”Les Aspin, of Wisconsin, says. “But I’m more worried about whether a Democrat can be elected President in this century.” Aspin’s view was expressed in a pithier fashion by one of his colleagues: “I see a wildly popular Republican President winning more than his share of battles, a continuing GOP majority in the Senate, the Democratic edge in party identifiers in the country evaporating, and a Republican Party with $100 million in the bank—and I should cry for the Republicans?”

Still, some Democrats have been sensitized by the raw emotions expressed by Republicans of all stripes during the Indiana debate and thereafter. Majority Leader Jim Wright, after that embarrassing confrontation with Dan Lungren, is one. Wright immediately apologized to Lungren for any offense taken when he said he’d like to punch Lungren in the mouth, insisting that he’d said it and meant it in a jocular fashion (a wholly believable claim, given that Wright is sixty-two and that the thirty-nine-yearold Lungren likes to lift weights and practice martial arts). But Lungren’s reaction stunned Wright and got him thinking, perhaps for the first time, about the deep frustrations of the permanent minority. Wright’s feelings are especially important, since he is the odds-on choice to replace Tip O’Neill as speaker after next year.

Despite his apology, Wright too seethes about the tactics and behavior of the COS congressmen. If they wanted to get under the skin of the Democrats’ most visible leaders, they have succeeded in his ease. “Some Republicans aren’t fazed if their own colleagues find them thoroughly objectionable. They are more militant than ever before, they try to attribute unworthy motives in a fashion that is nauseatingly prevalent. Gingrich, Weber, Walker, and the others, they’re not content to debate issues on their merits. They’re constantly in search of opportunities to allege that they’re being cheated, mistreated, abused by crass, power-mad Democrats oblivious of the rights of a minority. They are increasingly engaging in a form of latter-day McCarthyism. They attribute un-Americanism, a lack of patriotism, to us. It is simply offensive to the civility that must be a concomitant of the legislative process.” The attacks on the Speaker and the leadership are “like drops of water on a rock,” perpetrated by people who are trying deliberately to wear the Democrats down.

For all his very real indignation, Wright recognizes that he will have to live with the COS group for a long time—and that their focus of attack will shift directly to him if he becomes speaker. That’s one reason why he is so distressed over his lapse with Lungren. “I’m determined to make things better,” he says. But his harsh feelings about the Republicans are shared by many Democrats, including the top candidate for Democratic whip, Tony Coelho, of California, the intellectual leader of the fight-fire-with-fire school. Whatever happens in 1986, things are likely to get worse in 1987. “If I were a Democrat, I wouldn’t bank on the fact that we couldn’t bring this place to a halt,” Dan Lungren warns. With Ronald Reagan weaker in his last two years, the chances of a deadlock are greater.

There is one subject on which Democrats and Republicans agree: the House is becoming a much less pleasant place to be. Democrat Tom Downey says, “It’s a more frustrating place for everybody—and I can understand where the Republicans are coming from when you have to add minority status to that.”

“The House is just not that attractive a place for middle-aged family people,” Tom Tauke says, “it takes a tremendous amount of time—it’s a year-round job, you have to go home to the district most weekends, and it puts a real strain on your family. The salary, given the expenses, is not what most members can receive in the private sector.” Members constantly assess their options.

Perhaps the most worrisome problem is that the members most prone to dismay and frustration over the current situation—those most likely to ditch the House as a result—tend to be the best ones, who are institution-minded and leadership-oriented. Frustration with the job of a minority lawmaker was partly responsible for the retirement last year of Republican Barber Conable, perhaps the single most respected member of the House, and has spurred the departures planned for next year of top House Republicans like Tom Loeffler, of Texas, John McCain, of Arizona, Carroll Campbell, of South Carolina, and Henson Moore, of Louisiana, Some of these men are leaving to run for Senate seats, but their colleagues think that they are abandoning promising House careers less out of ambition that out of discontent with life in the minority. “For the real ideologues, and for the mediocrities, the House will still be a fine place to spend time,”one observer says. For the C-SPAN viewers looking for a rock’em, sock-’em, Dallas-like experience, that might be nice. But it won’t make much of a legislative body.

—Norman J. Ornstein