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Hey, They're Taking Slash-and-Burn to Extremes!


By Charles Babington

Sunday, December 21, 2003; Page B01


Congress's minority parties have suffered indignities for decades, but few could top the insult that Republicans dealt to Democrats this fall. When House-Senate negotiators began a series of closed-door sessions to craft an ambitious Medicare overhaul, GOP Rep. Bill Thomas summarily announced that he would allow not a single House Democrat -- and only two Senate Democrats -- in. His edict was a jaw-dropper, given Congress's long history of letting each party appoint its own representatives to these all-important "conference committees." To add injury to insult, the banned lawmakers included the Senate's Democratic leader, Tom Daschle.

Whether it amounted to cool Republican efficiency or an assault on fairness and democracy, politicians and the American public had better get used to it. Thomas and his GOP colleagues brushed aside Daschle's complaints and enacted their bill -- aided by a now-infamous three-hour House roll call -- with less minority party involvement than on any major issue in recent times. Congressional Republicans and the Bush administration now appear poised to press other initiatives with barely a pretense of seeking Democratic input. The strategy could go on for years if Republicans keep their House and Senate majorities in 2004 and Bush wins reelection -- certainly a plausible scenario.

What's taking place is more than bare-knuckled partisanship, though there's plenty of that. A potent confluence of events and personalities is changing Congress. Will that matter beyond the Beltway, or even Capitol Hill? Republicans say the Medicare bill would have come out the same even with a semblance of greater Democratic input. But some congressional scholars see tactics that, while perhaps ruthlessly expedient in the short run, seem destined to generate future animosity and retribution. "I honestly believe that policy suffers when enacted in this way," says Thomas Mann, who monitors Congress for the Brookings Institution. "There really is something to be said for a more open, deliberative process where you give full airing to issues and you try to build a larger majority. I don't believe major social changes are sustainable with margins like this."

Congress's majority parties have always dominated legislative action, but they typically have given the minority some voice -- even if it has amounted to little more than a floor vote on a sure-to-lose alternative bill, or conference committee recommendations destined to be rejected along party lines. Often, majority party leaders have made enough concessions to attract a few votes from across the aisle, withstand some intra-party defections and tout a piece of legislation as "bipartisan." (The conference on the original Medicare bill in 1965, when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress, included Republicans. Roughly half of all House and Senate Republicans voted for the final legislation.)

Recently, however, GOP leaders have largely dispensed with such niceties. Senate Republicans rewrote a massive (and still-pending) energy bill with zero Democratic participation. And top House and Senate Republicans negotiated the complex Medicare bill with only two conciliation-minded Democrats -- Sens. John Breaux (La.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) -- in the room. (When some House Democrats barged in one day, Thomas, the Ways and Means chairman, halted the meeting until they left.)

Defenders of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay say Republicans are simply repaying Democrats for wounds inflicted during four decades of Democratic House control. It's not hard to find congressional scholars who disagree. "Under Democratic rule, certainly you had a kind of marginalization of the minority, but not to the degree that it's being pursued now," says Ross K. Baker of Rutgers University. Jim Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies observes, "You have to go back to 'Iron Joe' Cannon to find that kind of behavior," referring to the legendarily strong-willed Democratic speaker from the early 20th century.

These hardball techniques underscore a paradox of current U.S. politics: The electorate is almost evenly divided, but federal policymaking is increasingly one-sided. With only the narrowest of House and Senate margins, Republican leaders are deploying scorched-earth, compromise-be-damned tactics, as if they ruled the nation 80-20, not 51-49. Rather than building broader consensus, they have decided they can't afford centrist compromises that might attract some Democratic support but lose even more votes from the GOP conservative wing.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says GOP leaders have found "you must keep your partisans together." House Republicans in particular, he says, "have been gradually using, on a regular basis, techniques that violate all the norms of conduct and behavior. And they've gotten away with it."

Nearly half the electorate -- people who chose Democrats to represent them in Congress -- are, to an increasing degree, disenfranchised. Their representatives aren't simply outvoted on the House and Senate floors, they're not even present when key legislation is discussed and refined. The pendulum always swings back eventually, though, and should the White House and Congress shift hands, this year's brutal and partisan practices may ensure a retaliatory cycle in which each aggrieved party feels compelled to wreak vengeance, lest it be viewed as wimpish.

Even GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona recently warned: "The Republicans had better hope that the Democrats never regain the majority."

Given a fatter cushion of votes, congressional GOP leaders might throw the Democrats a few bones, such as seats at key negotiating sessions, without fear of losing control of their bills.

Instead, they seem eager to bend Congress to their will, which frequently is synonymous with President Bush's agenda. Hastert of Illinois, DeLay of Texas and Thomas of California unapologetically seize whatever levers they need to win. Whereas House Republicans berated Democratic speaker Jim Wright in 1987 for extending a roll call -- normally 15 minutes -- by 10 more minutes, Hastert last month obliterated that record in order to cajole and badger enough colleagues into backing the Medicare bill. Sometimes the leaders' partisanship seems almost cartoonish, as when Thomas summoned Capitol police to evict Democrats from a quiet meeting room. (The cops refused.)

No one better exemplifies the win-at-all-cost philosophy than DeLay, who infuriates Democrats with his knack for exploiting opportunities that others have missed or disdained. Take his novel approach to congressional redistricting, a crucial tool in controlling the House. For years, politicians of all parties in all states redrew congressional lines once a decade, following each census (except when courts ruled otherwise). But DeLay destroyed that tradition this year by helping to ramrod a pro-Republican redistricting plan through the Texas legislature only two years after a federal court mandated a version friendlier to Democrats. (The court acted only after Texas legislature failed to agree on a map in 2001.)

Also feeding the heightened partisanship is the cumulative effect of congressional redistricting decisions. Nearly every state has carved itself into solidly Republican and solidly Democratic House districts. The practice drives each party to its fringes -- the GOP's right, the Democrats' left -- where motivated and ideological primary voters pick nominees who easily win the general election. The result is a House with far more conservatives and liberals than centrists, badly out of sync with the more moderate public.

Hastert, DeLay and Thomas are building on what Newt Gingrich and his lieutenants began when they led the 1994 GOP takeover of the House, says AU's Thurber. "They learned that they could govern without comity and civility and without reaching out to the middle, because the middle wasn't there anymore," he says. Indeed, Republican partisans say all Thomas did by barring most Democrats from his Medicare negotiating sessions was to assemble a "coalition of the willing."

Even so, congressional Republicans might not have rolled their adversaries so thoroughly this year if the Democrats had been more united and resolute. In October, when Thomas announced that Breaux and Baucus would be the only Democrats to attend the Medicare negotiating sessions, Democrats might have drawn a line then and there. Could they have demanded that Republicans admit all conferees or lose the bill to a Democratic-led filibuster? "You bet!" says Ornstein. "It is so self-evident that your leverage as a minority party is there when you hang together."

To be sure, Daschle protested the GOP actions numerous times. In fact, "Democrats made a huge stink about this," said his spokeswoman, Ranit Schmelzer. But the media, she says, showed little interest. "The Democrats could scream about it, but that's about it," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

Ornstein points his finger at Breaux and Baucus. If Democrats were serious about protecting their status as a party, he says, the two would have insisted, "one for all, all for one. If you don't let in Tom Daschle -- our leader, elected by the Senate to be in the room -- then we're not going in the room."

Had that happened, congressional insiders say, Republicans would have denounced the Democrats as obstructionists.

Democrats should have called their bluff, says Ornstein. The GOP argument "would not have sold," he says. "Obstructionism is a charge that works when you have divided government, not unified government." With Republicans controlling the House, Senate and White House, he says, they'd have a hard time convincing the public that Democrats managed to kill anything the GOP truly wanted. But Ornstein likens the Democrats' resistance to a fence: "You brush up against it, realize there's no electric charge, and you push the fence down."

So, what will be the legacy of the 2003 congressional session, beyond Mann's prediction that it "will be remembered for the death of 'regular order' "? Perhaps Republicans will look back on it as a watershed that proved the majority party can enact its agenda without coddling the minority. Or maybe not.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) is that rare bird -- a political scientist (with a doctorate from Yale) and a member of Congress. He questions whether Republicans have won a long-term victory. "Do they stand to lose anything? I think so," Price says. "I understand the importance of winning. But I think the House over the years has developed, for very good reasons, some norms and practices that build a broader consensus. I believe that day will come very soon when they will need broader support than they can muster on the Republican side. . . . And they'll find they've burned some bridges."

Some Republicans can dismiss such talk as the musings of political losers and "good government" softies. But even hard-headed veterans are shaking their heads at the shortsightedness of excluding the minority party and injecting more partisan bitterness into Capitol Hill. It's like drinking too much on New Year's Eve: It feels good at the time, but there's hell to pay later.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company



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Charles Babington is congressional editor of The Washington Post.



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