With their newly-minted majority just hours away from inauguration, the Democrats have made many plans on how they will run Congress over the next two years. However, the New York Times reminds us that the new majority has some fractious potential thanks to the large percentage who have never served in the majority — and thanks to another factor the Times neglects to mention:
Those divergent outlooks over how best to fulfill the Democratic promise to clean up the House are just one illustration of a friction that could develop in the new Congress as the party takes control after 12 years in exile. While most attention will be focused on the divide between Republicans and Democrats, members of the new majority have their own differing perspectives, corresponding largely to length of service, that could ultimately prove more crucial to their success or failure.
Of 233 Democrats who will be sworn in on Thursday, 147 — 63 percent — have been elected since Republicans won control of the House in 1994, and have never served in the majority. Those whose service predates the 1994 revolution, on the other hand, number only 86, or 37 percent. But it is this core of senior Democrats, Mr. Dingell among them, who will lead 20 of the 21 major committees and so exercise concentrated legislative power.
The differences in tenure tend to manifest themselves geographically as well. The makeup of the senior membership has a more urban flavor, while those more recently elected tend to come from the suburbs and exurbs. These newer members have faced tougher electoral opposition than their older counterparts, who in many cases represent overwhelmingly safe Democratic districts; a majority of new chairmen have traditional liberal roots.
The issue at hand in this Carl Hulse analysis is ethics reform, but it may just as well be universal health care, energy policy, or any of a number of policy questions facing the Democrats after twelve years in the wilderness, at least legislatively. In order to win control of the House, the Democrats had to moderate their message across a wide front to win suburban voters disillusioned, at least momentarily, by the GOP. As a result, their new profile reflects the center more than the traditional pillars of liberalism, such as labor and urban concerns, and their constituents care more about fiscal responsibility than in funding massive programs.
Of course, the Democrats could choose to ignore that and stuff their programs down the throats of the freshmen. In doing so, they would kiss 2008 goodbye and in all likelihood would gain nothing from it. That comes from two uncomfortable facts, both of which Hulse mostly misses. The first and most obvious fact is that the Republicans still control the White House, and George Bush will probably spend the next two years giving full vent to his veto power. The second and more subtle is that the Democrats do not have the numbers to beat a presidential veto or a minority filibuster in the Senate, and that will put an end to any notion of remaking government.
The Democrats will, if they’re smart, spend the next two years making a case for one-party government after spending the last six complaining about it. They need either much bigger majorities or the White House, and preferably both. If they hope to accomplish that, they will need to consolidate their gains in this last election, and the surest way to fail at that will be to start massive government programs that will infuriate the suburban voters who just gave the keys to the Democrats for a test drive.
Democrats have to focus on the issues which they can change on their own, without having to worry about vetoes or filibusters, and that means two areas: rules and investigations. Now that they have subpoena power, they can stage as many investigations as they like, and they will give full rein to this impulse. They can also adapt House rules as they like, and so they have the power to actually accomplish some real reform. However, they have already blown that issue through Nancy Pelosi’s insistence on championing such paragons of virtue as Alcee Hastings and John Murtha for key leadership positions.
Expect, then, to see earmark reform and clean government to take a back seat to subpoenas and hearings. The Democrats will be unable to unite long enough to do much of anything else, and this Congress will do less legislatively than any in recent memory.
UPDATE: EJ Dionne notes the absolute need for Democrats to focus on reform:
The Democrats who take power in Congress on Thursday have been given an opportunity that has not come their party’s way for a half-century: They can remake their own image — and Congress’s — and they can begin to restore public confidence in government. …
If Democrats don’t seize this rare opportunity, their party will pay for a long time. Not only will they disillusion their own supporters, but, more important, the angry centrists of the Ross Perot stripe who voted the Republicans out last year will either go back to the GOP or seek other options.
The first opportunity in the House will come on the very first day, when a package of reforms comes up for a vote. The Senate will take its own steps soon after. At stake initially are new ethics and lobbying rules. Over time House and Senate leaders will have to prove their commitment to bringing more democracy to the way Congress is run. A country that claims a mission to democracy and transparent government in the rest of the world needs to get its own institutions in order.
Some of these reforms look pretty good. They ban House members from accepting lobbyist-paid travel and company planes as well as gifts of any stripe from lobbyists. They are also considering a disclosure system for earmarks that would force lobbyists to claim responsibility for each specific earmark proposed as well as naming the House member that sponsored it. The latter has already been accomplished by the GOP on their way out of Congress, but anything that would strengthen the rule and further connect earmarks to the interests pushing them would be a significant improvement. However, the value of these reforms lie in the details, as Dionne notes. If they allow Representatives to bypass these restrictions based on the meaning of the word ‘is’, then expect the voters to be less than impressed.
Dionne thinks that reform is the most critical issue for Democrats hoping to make their majority a habit. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that the Democratic leadership agrees — as the aborted promotion of Hastings and Murtha demonstrates.