A House Divided

William F. Connelly, Jr., John J. Pitney, Jr.

July 1, 1994

On May 31, a federal grand jury issued a seventeen-count indictment against
Representative Dan Rostenkowski (D-Illinois), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Few reporters noted a striking coincidence: the indictment came on the fifth anniversary of Speaker Jim Wright’s resignation from Congress. When Wright departed in 1989, many observers hoped that the House would enter a new era of high-mindedness. Rostenkowski’s indictment, stemming from the rancorous scandal over the House Post Office, suggests that these hopes were ill-founded.

Five years ago, House Republicans felt especially relieved, because Wright had used his procedural power to win at all costs. In one infamous case, he seemed to have lost a crucial roll call by one vote–until he extended the voting time so that he could get a Texas Democrat to switch his position and reverse the outcome. Under the new Speaker, Tom Foley (D-Washington), Republicans thought they would get a better deal on the House floor; and in his early months, Foley appeared to treat them fairly.

But conflict soon returned, and Republicans gradually concluded that the majority was tightening the procedural rules. In 1990, for instance, child care legislation came to the floor under a rule that barred Republican amendments. Republican Leader Bob Michael (R-Illinois) responded with an uncharacteristic outburst: “Mr. Speaker, if Mr. Gorbachev did something like this in the Soviet Union, we would be decrying his dictatorial ways. But we have no glasnost in this House. Do I have to say that we do not even have comity anymore? The Majority has turned this House into a den of inequity.”

The following year brought “the Congress from Hell.” Newspapers reported that the House Bank had long given members free overdraft privileges on their checking accounts, or in effect, zero-interest loans. “Rubber checks” became an instant campaign issue. Meanwhile, a probe of the House Post Office raised financial questions that would lead to Rostenkowski’s indictment. The probe also revealed that House Postmaster Rota had helped House Democrats keep tabs on their opposition. Whenever GOP members circulated a “Dear Republican Colleague” letter, Rota sent copies to Democratic aides and members, but he did not give “Dear Democratic Colleague” letters to Republicans.

During the 1980s, House Democrats had justified their hardball tactics by citing the need to check Republican presidents. The election of Bill Clinton, however, did nothing to modify their behavior. When the 103rd Congress got under way in 1993, they sought to grant five nonvoting delegates–all Democrats–a vote in the Committee of the Whole, where the House conducts most of its business. In Democratic eyes, the change was an effort to give a voice to disenfranchised American nationals. In Republican eyes, it was a maneuver to offset half of the GOP’s ten-seat gain. When the Republican critique won support from the press, the Democrats offered a compromise procedure that effectively nullified the delegates’ voices whenever they would change the outcome.

In April 1993, the Republicans had another bad flashback when the House considered a bill concerning “expedited recission” of federal spending. At the end of the roll call on the rule, the bill seemed doomed. Speaker Foley then held the vote open for an additional thirteen minutes so that he could switch a couple of votes and change the outcome. The Wall Street Journal decried the incident in an editorial titled “Jim Wright Returns.”

The House Republicans have scored a few victories. With the help of Rush Limbaugh and Ross Perot, they compelled the House to end the secrecy of the discharge petition, a procedure under which members can force floor action on bills mired in committee. Previously, the names of the members signing a discharge petition did not become public until it had reached the required total of 218. Now that the names would be public from the start, Republicans hoped, voters would press lawmakers to sign discharge petitions for conservative measures that committees had blocked.

Overall, however, the picture remains bleak. The Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress began work last year by discussing sweeping reforms in congressional procedures. After months of partisan bickering, it drafted exceedingly weak recommendations–and even these proved too strong for the majority leadership. Roll Call, the newspaper of Capital Hill, recently editorialized: “Foley and other Democratic leaders were clearly never serious about reform. They’ve stalled and stalled . . . and that stalling isn’t practical for much longer, they’re preparing for a reform vote that will be nothing more than election-year window-dressing.”

Another example of stillborn reform involves the creation of a new, purportedly non-partisan, House administrator in 1992. Speaker Foley declared the “days of patronage are over,” and yet less than a third of all patronage positions were placed under the new administrator, retired Army lieutenant general Leonard Wishart. In early 1994, Wishart resigned in frustration.

What has happened to the House? The short answer in that a single party has controlled the institution for nearly forty years–longer than most Americans have been alive. No sitting House Republican has ever served in the majority, and only three Democrats (one of whom is retiring this year) have ever served in the minority. This situation is neither natural nor healthy for the House. After four decades in power, any political party would grow arrogant and abusive: without the chastening experience of serving in the minority, lawmakers lose sight of the need for accountability and fair play.

For most of congressional history, control of the House frequently changed hands. Until the current reign of the House Democrats, no party had ever held a majority for more than sixteen years at a stretch. Unless and until this pattern returns, the downfall of individual leaders will make little difference.

William F. Connelly, Jr. is associate professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. John J. Pitney, Jr. is associate professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College. They recently co-authored Congress’ Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House (Rowman and Littlefield, 1994).