Nearly 10 years after winning control of the House by vowing a fairer and more open Congress, Republicans have tossed aside many of the institutional reforms they promised, increasingly employing hard-nosed tactics they decried a decade ago, according to numerous lawmakers and scholars.
Among the reforms championed by an earlier generation of House Republicans, and subsequently dropped or weakened: term limits for rank-and-file members as well as committee chairmen; stricter ethics laws; and greater power for individual members and the minority party.
Republicans have instead consolidated power in the hands of a few leaders, most notably Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.). In the process, the authority of committee chairmen and the influence of rank-and-file members have waned.
Republican leaders have cracked down on GOP lawmakers who oppose them, creating a culture in which Republicans often fear bucking the party line.
And, increasingly, they have systematically prevented Democrats from offering ideas and amendments in committee or on the House floor -- a tactic DeLay, when he was in the minority, called the "arrogance of power."
After a recent dustup between the two parties, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) lamented, "It's the way [Democrats] treated us when we were in the minority. We're in the majority party. We need to be bigger than our egos. We need to be adults."
Hastert dismissed such talk, saying Democrats were far more punitive when they were in power.
"People would have their keys to their offices or their parking spots taken away," he said in an interview yesterday. "We don't do that, and we can't do that." Referring to Democrats, he said, "If you don't have policy, you complain about process."
Democrats are staging protests over what they call unfair treatment, hoping to build a political campaign around it -- much as Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Hastert and DeLay did when they spearheaded their party's 1994 takeover of the House after 40 years of Democratic control.
Republicans have "shut out the minority, shut 'em down and shut 'em up," Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said. "It could end up hurting them" as it hurt Democrats a decade ago, he said. "We will develop a theme around that."
At a private meeting of GOP committee chairmen this week, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) had a warning for colleagues. The 2004 elections "will be a referendum on us," Davis said he told them. "You always have the ability to overplay your hand. We have to be careful of that."
While many of these issues are esoteric internal matters holding little interest for average Americans, the Republicans' management of the House spilled into public view when Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) last week called the Capitol Police to evict Democratic members -- who were protesting a procedural ruling -- from a committee room.
Democrats assailed the decision, and Hastert, sensing a public relations disaster, pressed Thomas to apologize. The chairman did so, tearfully, on the House floor Wednesday.
Former majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said in an interview this week that he could see Democrats using the actions of Thomas and others to paint "a systematic pattern of Republicans using heavy-handed tactics. . . . We said 40 years of one-party rule is enough. Now they're saying 10 years is enough."
Perhaps most vexing to House Democrats is the GOP's refusal to let them offer ideas -- such as an expansion of the child tax credit for low-income families -- for votes on the House floor. Republicans won control of the House, in part, by promising to allow elected representatives a chance to voice their proposals and have them voted up or down. On the November 1994 night that voters delivered the House into GOP hands, the incoming speaker, Gingrich, declared: "We're going to be dramatically more fair than the Democrats have been in my lifetime."
Nonetheless, Republicans routinely write complicated legislation and provide Democrats little time to review it. They frequently prevent the minority party from offering an alternative.
Norman Ornstein, a nonpartisan congressional scholar, this week wrote in the newspaper Roll Call that the Democratic "high-handedness" Gingrich lamented was "nothing compared to what House Republicans are doing now."
Republicans concede that it was easier -- or more convenient -- to make promises in 1993 as the minority party, than to keep them in 2003 as the majority party.
Self-imposed term limits were never popular with members seeking to keep their jobs, and voters rarely if ever punished those who broke their term-limit vows. House Republicans tightened ethics laws when they took power, outlawing gifts from lobbyists. But they later permitted members and staff to accept meals and gifts worth as much as $50, and allowed outside interests to deliver meals to them on Capitol Hill. The reason: Republicans said the original restriction was too draconian.
With Republicans holding a 229 to 205 majority in the House (there is one Independent), some leaders make no apology for regularly denying Democrats a chance to offer compromise legislation that might attract enough GOP moderates to derail a leadership-backed measure.
"The philosophy is that if we create bills that get largely Republican support . . . we're able to drive the country in a specific direction," House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said.
In many ways, Thomas represents the complicated legacy the GOP has forged in trying to reform the House while also aggressively pursuing its agenda. He has been a force for change, helping dismantle the patronage system that dominated House operations under the Democrats and contributed to scandals involving the House bank and post office.
On their first day as the majority party, Republicans adopted the Congressional Accountability Act, which applied federal workplace standards to Capitol Hill. For the first time, police officers could form unions and receive overtime pay, and blue-collar workers enjoyed the same rights to safe working environments that their counterparts in the federal government held.
As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Thomas recruited outside managers to run the chamber's day-to-day operations. He commissioned an independent audit, in which accountants had to sift through handwritten ledgers to decipher how Democrats had spent federal funds. He got rid of the daily ice deliveries to members' offices, suggesting staffers could use nearby ice machines.
His committee disbanded the "folding room," an internal mail operation that employed a disproportionate number of the constituents of then-Rep. Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.). "We professionalized the House," Thomas said.
At the same time, Thomas developed a dominating leadership style reminiscent of the Democratic old bulls', often ignoring the minority and pursuing legislative wins at all costs. On Thomas's Ways and Means Committee, "the norm now is to treat the minority as if it doesn't exist, not just by steamrolling over it, but by finding ways to humiliate it in the process," Ornstein wrote.
Thomas was also part of the leadership team that diluted or ignored some of the bigger reforms. After promising to impose term limits on members, committee chairmen and party leaders, Republicans retreated.
They first dropped their push for term limits on all House members and started allowing some chairmen exemptions from their six-year limit. At the beginning of this Congress, they jettisoned the eight-year term limit on Hastert's position as speaker, and gave him an even bigger say in the selection of future Appropriations "cardinals" -- the subcommittee chairmen who largely shape federal spending.
The consolidation of power extends beyond longer holds on leadership posts. From the start, Gingrich and his top three deputies determined the shape of legislation and how it would move, rather than deferring to committee chairmen. At times Gingrich would personally rewrite legislation, such as the telecommunications act in the mid-'90s.
Today, some members say Hastert commands even more power than Gingrich did. Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the Appropriations Committee's ranking Democrat, recalled times in the 1990s when his GOP counterpart, Robert Livingston (La.), would thunder into the phone that he would not acquiesce to Gingrich's demands. Nowadays, Obey said, Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) does not put up such fights.
The leadership's decision to siphon some of the appropriators' power, Obey said, denies committee members a chance to apply their policy expertise to legislation. "You can get your marching orders from your leadership," he said, "but that has to be tempered by your own substantive knowledge. That's where this system has largely broken down."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company