MotherJones JA93: Lions into lambs

Perks and plum assignments muted freshmen’s call to reform.

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“Any [congressional] class is a product of its political culture,” says political analyst Norman Ornstein, “and the culture of 1992 was disgust with Congress.” It was that disgust that filled the 103d Congress with a record 110 newcomers–sixty-three Democrats and forty-seven Republicans. The media buzzed with speculation that these newcomers, combined with the ugly public mood, would make congressional reform inevitable.

But what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? House Speaker Thomas Foley, a Democrat from Washington and the godfather of the House of Representatives, read with growing annoyance press accounts of various freshman members’ House-cleaning ideas. “That’s not reform, that’s nonsense,” Foley snapped to reporters in November, complaining about freshmen “posturing [for] one- or two-day newspaper stories.”

Freshman Democrat Karen Shepherd of Utah, flush with victory, snapped back at the speaker’s remark. “Nobody ever gave power away easily or politely, or with a smile.”

Republican and Democratic freshmen quickly reinforced public hope by announcing that they would begin work on reform packages even before being sworn into office in January. The new Republicans were first out of the blocks, inviting all new members to a bipartisan freshman meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, in late November. “With 110 new members, our potential is great, even if we can agree on just a few issues,” said freshman Republican Tillie Fowler of Florida.


The Democratic leadership was unenthusiastic about the Omaha meeting and sent word to the Democratic freshmen. “Unity among Democrats was the theme,” said freshman Democrat David Minge of Minnesota. “That theme was repeated and repeated.” Not a single freshman Democrat showed up for the Omaha sit-down.

By driving a wedge between the Democratic and Republican freshmen, House leaders undercut the Class of 1992 before they had even set foot in Washington. “The tragedy was that we lost the opportunity to make contact and step outside the partisan process to take on the voters’ mandate,” said freshman Republican Martin Hoke of Ohio.

To give freshman Democrats something to do while the Republicans were talking reform, Foley scheduled three regional meetings with the new Democratic members. At these meetings Foley and other House leaders showed little interest in hearing the freshmen’s thoughts on House reform. When freshman Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, asked for a few minutes with the speaker to discuss reform ideas he had, Foley brushed him off.

According to Gutierrez aide Bruce Scofield, “House leaders wanted to make sure that leadership kept coming from the top and that Congress continued to run in the ways they were accustomed to. There was a clear sense that [the meetings] were intended to be an imparting of how the current system works.”

At one meeting Foley was blunt about his views on radical reform. “It takes a skilled carpenter to build a barn,” he said. “Any jackass can kick it down.”

The new Republican members had emerged from their Omaha meeting with a list of reforms that struck at the key issues, including limiting the power of the leadership of both parties–changes that many freshman Democrats found attractive.

“The Republican freshmen had some bold and dramatic reforms,” said David Minge. “And they were willing to take on their own party leaders and really shake it up. But let’s face it, they had nothing to lose. Their leadership really had nothing to offer them.”

Foley and the Democratic leadership, on the other hand, had plenty to offer or withhold–namely, plum committee assignments.


Democrat Eric Fingerhut of Ohio, one of the more vocal freshman reformers, was named to co-chair the freshman Democrats’ task force on congressional reform. He took the job seriously and told the speaker that his task force would not be able to complete their work by the original deadline. Fingerhut got an extension, but that was the last thing he got. He was promptly denied the seat he had requested on the powerful Public Works and Transportation Committee.

Meanwhile, Fingerhut’s co-chair on the task force, Karen Shepherd, who’d won a narrow victory by running against an “entrenched and out- of-touch Congress,” did land a seat on Public Works. Although term limits had been one of the planks of her platform, she hasn’t mentioned the subject since her election. Shepherd says she came to differentiate between “important” reforms, such as making committee chairmanships more accessible to women and minorities, and “symbolic” reforms, such as cutting congressional perks.

Other reformers also began to see the advantages of the existing system. Freshman Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington had advocated placing a strict cap on PAC contributions. But just days before her draft reforms were released, she held a five-hundred-dollar-a-PAC fund-raiser in which thirty-nine PACs helped to retire her campaign debt.

Committee assignments culled the herd of reformers down to a mere handful. Six freshman Democrats were given seats on the Energy and Commerce Committee (which the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot has dubbed “[Representative] John Dingell’s school of perpetual incumbency and PAC accumulation”). A record fifteen freshman Democrats were appointed to the Public Works Committee, which has always been the easiest place from which to direct federal money to one’s own district. Under a Clinton administration committed to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, this committee is the Holy Grail of congressional assignments.

“What the freshmen learned by this point was that the current system is really an incumbent-protection mechanism,” said Pam Gilbert of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “Good committee assignments mean power, and power means that PAC money seeks them.” And power and money virtually ensure reelection.

Fingerhut’s task force continued to talk about sweeping reform, and in early March hammered out a wish list of reforms that targeted such perks as the free parking available to members of Congress at National Airport, and the free mail, or “franking,” privileges that boost incumbents’ campaigns. The task force also recommended scrapping the seniority system that promotes members based on years of service rather than ability.

But then the task force was thrown a curve. After meeting with senior members of the Democratic Black Caucus, black and minority freshman Demo-crats announced that they would fight any change in the existing seniority system. Fingerhut disagreed with his minority classmates but found himself in a political bind. “I was sensitive to their concerns,” said Fingerhut. “They were basically saying that they had played by the rules all these years, and just as senior black members like Ron Dellums were getting important chairmanships, we were going to change those rules on them. What was I supposed to do? Go on a hunger strike until they changed their view of seniority?”


On March 24, with the task force’s deadline approaching, Fingerhut called all sixty-three freshman Democrats together for a closed-door meeting without congressional staffers. The meeting dragged on late into the night.

According to Fingerhut, “Strong words were exchanged. We left with a strong respect for the diversity of this class.”

Or was it a lack of diversity? “A lot of these people were simply misread by voters and the press,” said David Minge. “They didn’t come here to undermine the leadership. They wanted to become part of the leadership as quickly as possible.”

On March 31, the freshman Democrats presented their reform package on the House floor. Only twenty-five of the original fifty proposals had survived, and these dealt mostly with parliamentary matters. The proposals included suggestions that Congress adhere to the same civil-rights and workplace laws that it imposes on everyone else, and that committee members at a hearing be called upon in order of appearance rather than by seniority. The task force also matched the executive branch with a proposed 25 percent House budget cut over five years, and voiced general support for campaign finance reform.

“I can’t point to one significant difference this freshman class has made to effect real reform,” said Pam Gilbert of Congress Watch. “It’s shocking how fast they caved in after arriving here. If you blinked, you missed it.”

“More than half of these freshmen ran on reform platforms,” said Martin Hoke. “I think most of them are in denial now. They’ve convinced themselves that they are leading a charge for reform, whereas it seems clear that they were bought off by their leadership and just don’t realize it. That’s what scares me.


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