Then Came the Hammer

The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican

By Lou Dubose and Jan Reid • Public Affairs • 306 pages • $26.00

On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and Its Consequences,

By Julian E. Zelizer • Cambridge University Press • 376 pages • $30.00

The American Congress: The Building of Democracy

Edited by Julian E. Zelizer • Houghton Mifflin • 784 pages • $35.00

How Congress Evolves: Social Bases of Institutional Change

By Nelson W. Polsby • Oxford University Press • 257 pages • $29.95

Like No Other Time: The Two Years That Changed America

By Tom
Daschle with Michael D'Orso • Three Rivers Press • 292 pages • $14.00

“This house could pass an elephant if it chose,” the legendary House Speaker Joseph Cannon said a century ago when Republican leaders used procedural rules and prerogatives to enforce a rigid discipline over the institution. Cannon was eventually toppled, but a century and a full cycle of institutional history later, Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert boast as complete power over the House of Representatives as Cannon ever had. And therein hangs a tale.

The Republican leadership's tight control of the House has been one of the central realities of American politics since 1994, and with the GOP expanding its majority in this year's elections, that control will remain a fact of life for the foreseeable future. Few people, however, appreciate the irony that the Republican leadership owes its extraordinary power to a coalition of liberal Democrats who spent decades working for structural reforms of Congress. Long thwarted by powerful southern committee chairs, congressional liberals during the mid-20th century believed that they would increase the chances of passing progressive legislation only if they could strengthen the leadership's power to appoint committee chairs and decide what bills would reach the floor.
Eventually, the liberals got the procedural changes they wished for -- and conservatives reaped the benefits.

How such Democratic reformers as Hubert Humphrey and Philip Burton unknowingly laid the groundwork for the rise of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay is the most provocative aspect of the history recounted in Julian E. Zelizer's On Capitol Hill. Zelizer's book and several other recent volumes about the workings of Congress help to explain why Republicans have been able to pass major legislation despite thin majorities that would have led to political deadlock in the past.

Zelizer's story of congressional reform begins in the late 1930s and '40s, when, based on seniority rules, southern Democrats ascended to most of the major committee chairmanships in Congress and began using their power to kill liberal initiatives, mainly those pertaining to civil rights and labor, though occasionally bills addressing such issues as education. The committee-era House, as Nelson Polsby describes it in typically breezy fashion in How Congress Evolves, was “not unlike Jurassic Park, filled with very large, threatening, carnivorous committee chairmen who like[d] to dine on liberal legislation.” Waging battle against these dinosaurs and their Republican allies was a counter-coalition of northern Democratic legislators with predominantly urban, labor-heavy constituencies. Convinced that liberal policies enjoyed a popular mandate, senators such as Humphrey and Paul Douglas and representatives such as Eugene McCarthy and Frank Thompson chafed against the cumbersome legislative apparatus that allowed conservatives to thwart change.

Shut out of congressional power, the liberals worked with such organizations as the AFT-CIO and the NAACP in waging sophisticated campaigns outside of Congress to put institutional reform on the agenda of legislators and elite opinion-makers. In the 1950s and '60s, civil rights served as the unifying battle cry of congressional reform. Zelizer's engrossing account of struggles over the filibuster in the late '50s and the fight to expand the House Rules Committee in 1961 nicely underscore the notion that institutional reform was an inextricable component of the great moral battles of the era.

During the 1960s, however, a crucial transformation took place, according to Zelizer. The reform coalition became committed to structural change in Congress as an end in itself, detached from liberal objectives. A new generation of suburban Democratic politicians, with weaker ties to labor and closer connections to the new social movements of the era, championed procedural reforms without worrying about whom they would bring down in the process. Legislators such as Pat Schroeder in the House and Walter Mondale in the Senate worked alongside new public-interest organizations to further weaken the autonomy of committee chairs, build up the resources of subcommittees, and strengthen ethics rules and standards of accountability. As Zelizer stresses, the reforms contained both centralizing and decentralizing elements. The overarching goal was to make the party structure in Congress not simply stronger but also more responsive to rank-and-file wishes and public scrutiny. The watershed elections of 1974, ushering in a congressional class of aggressively reformist “Watergate babies,” ensured a final triumph: the toppling of four old-guard committee heads in 1975, the end of the “tyranny” of seniority, and the close of the committee era.

What would take its place? One of the deposed committee barons, 73-year-old Edward Hébert of Louisiana, exclaimed after his ouster in 1975 that “Common Cause is running Congress” and invoked the French Revolution to capture his sense of the chaos that was overtaking the institution. Despite his hyperbole, Hébert captured a truth about the instability that would characterize the post-committee era. The institutional reforms of Congress -- together with a 24-hour news cycle and the rise of cable news channels -- promoted scandal-mongering and partisanship. Zelizer and Polsby agree that instability and partisanship stand as perhaps the two defining characteristics of the new congressional era.

Polsby's slim, elegant volume offers an analysis of how that new era arose. His overarching argument is demographic and focuses on the rise of the Republican Party in the South and the myriad consequences of that regional realignment for the House as an institution. Though his focus differs somewhat, Zelizer tells much the same tale; indeed, he captures with more precision than Polsby the interplay between the rise of the right and the growth of congressional partisanship -- and the ways in which liberal institutional reform hastened both developments. Republicans benefited from the reforms because they had the energy and vision to adapt to the new conditions. As Zelizer lays it out, during the late 1970s and '80s a determined faction of Republicans capitalized on the decentralizing elements of the reforms, such as new arrangements for congressional self-policing and investigation, to mire the Democratic leadership in scandal and disrepute.

Both Zelizer in his own book and Donald T. Critchlow in his contribution to the invaluable Zelizer-edited anthology The American Congress document the emergence of the fiercely partisan Republican faction led by Gingrich. Using innovative media appeals and televised floor speeches to rail against the “tyranny” of the Democratic leadership, these movement warriors had no use for the “half-a-loaf” strategies of compromise and comity preferred by their elders. Known by colleagues as the “Gingrich guerrillas,” they were the vanguard of post-committee-era congressional politics. Gingrich specialized in slashing, personalized attacks on House speakers and managed to draw real blood from Tip O'Neill, Jim Wright, and Tom Foley in succession.

Once Gingrich and his faction had plied this strategy all the way to a congressional takeover in 1994, they swiftly switched tacks and moved to shore up the centralizing features of the post-committee system. They further tamed the committee chairs, concentrating unprecedented power in the party leadership, and shut the minority out of influence on legislation. These institutional changes marked the full and ironic realization of the old liberal reform agenda's centralizing impulse.

* * *

No doubt about it, the days of autocratic committee heads are now safely behind us. In Lou Dubose and Jan Reid's eye-opening new book about DeLay, The Hammer, we see example after example of committee chairs humiliated, browbeaten, or stripped of power, all at the behest of the House party leadership that DeLay has effectively controlled since the late 1990s. The book chronicles his intimidation of Henry Hyde, who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the impeachment crisis was open to a compromise with Democrats around a bipartisan censure of Bill Clinton. DeLay not only disabused Hyde of that notion; he also transformed the committee itself into a whip operation to follow the vote count for impeachment. DeLay reduced Ben Gilman of New York nearly to tears by threatening to strip his House Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship if he didn't vote for impeachment. Several years later, DeLay blocked Christopher Shays from advancing to the chairmanship of the Government Reform Committee as payback for the campaign-finance-reform bill that Shays helped to write.

In some ways, Congress has come full circle. Elizabeth Sanders and Eric Rauchway's incisive contributions to The American Congress highlight the tyrannical Republican speakers of a century ago, the “czars” Cannon and Thomas Reed. To modern readers, those speakers' tactics will seem unmistakably familiar. The key difference is that the czars faced a strong bipartisan congressional-reform coalition that ultimately brought them down. Nothing of the sort seems imminent in Congress today.

Both the top-down discipline and the partisan hostility of the Republican leadership are recurring themes in Senator Tom Daschle's engaging memoir, Like No Other Time, which chronicles his experience as party leader during the turbulent two years of the 107th Congress (2001–02). Daschle relished the spirit of bipartisan comity in the weeks following September 11, and he was startled by the rapidity and viciousness with which that comity was snuffed out by the Republicans. Unlike their counterparts in the House, senators have never been subject to tight party discipline. But Daschle offers ample evidence that the Senate is heading in the direction of the House's disciplined and bare-knuckled partisanship. After a sustained, nationally funded campaign of vilification against him in his home state, Daschle went down to defeat himself this fall -- a loss not only for Democrats but for the cause of decency in congressional politics.

In both chambers, matters have only gotten worse during the past two years. As Robert Kuttner has shown in these pages [see “America as a One-Party State,” February 2004], the litany of procedural abuses and autocratic tactics that the Republican leadership now employs as a matter of course is remarkable: closed votes, legislation drafted in conference, bills dictated entirely by the leadership, floor votes kept open past the time limit, rampant secrecy, and the barring of Democrats from genuine participation at the committee, floor, and conference levels. (Republican leaders managed to indulge virtually all of these abuses in the course of passing the Medicare bill in 2003, a process that unfolded as a kind of Grand Guignol horror show of legislative malfeasance.) As one revealing measure, Zelizer points out that the proportion of all legislation submitted with special rules preventing floor amendments increased from 15.7 percent in 1975–76 to 44.6 percent 10 years later; The Boston Globe recently reported that the figure for 2004 stands at 85 percent. As Barney Frank tells Dubose and Reid in The Hammer, “The House of Representatives is no longer a deliberative body. It's a plebiscitary system.”

This system entails a much strengthened party leadership, but with none of the attendant responsiveness and accountability that the old liberal congressional reformers wanted. The dwindling ranks of GOP moderates and mavericks in the House have virtually no influence in their party's conference. (This is less starkly the case on the Senate side, though Jim Jeffords obviously has much to say on the subject of Republican marginalization of moderates, as does his friend Lincoln Chafee.)

Moreover, the impunity with which DeLay and his allies regularly engage in pay-to-play lawmaking and flagrant abuses of power illustrates a breakdown in the structures that reformers had intended to ensure congressional accountability. The three admonishments that DeLay received this fall from a normally torpid House Ethics Committee were shocking precisely because they were so atypical of this recent congressional era. It should be remembered, however, that the committee likely would have avoided taking even the meager action it did had not Ronnie Earle, the district attorney in Austin, Texas, indicted several of DeLay's cronies in a 2002 Texas fund-raising scheme, thereby creating unavoidable pressure for the panel to do something. DeLay's response to the admonishments -- dismissive to the point of open contemptuousness -- and the united public front of support forged by his House party conference are far more characteristic than the rebukes themselves of the current state of congressional accountability.

The new Congress is unlikely to bring much change in this regard, unless the Republicans go even further in restricting the influence of the Democrats.
The House GOP expanded its majority slightly in November, while Senate Republicans gained four seats. The election results have only vindicated DeLay and Hastert's intensely centralized party rule in the House (Democratic efforts to topple moderate GOP incumbents by linking them with DeLay's leadership style and scandals failed in November) and Frist's intermittently partisan tactics in the Senate. The plebiscitary system that the GOP has forged out of the old liberal reform agenda will be with us for a while longer.

The beleaguered Democrats, meanwhile, seem likely to adjust by taking organizational steps that further intensify congressional partisanship and centralized party controls. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has sought to tighten party discipline in the past two years through, for example, rule changes that expand the reach of the leadership in appointing subcommittee chairs. She is likely to take additional steps in this direction, using reform-era organizational approaches not to advance liberal policies over conservative obstruction, as they were originally meant to do, but rather to maintain as solid and effective an opposition as possible in the face of radical Republican legislation.

It is hard to overstate just how grim the Democrats' legislative position is, and how imperiled their prospects are of regaining House or Senate control anytime remotely soon. Gerrymandering and the fund-raising machine developed through DeLay's “K-Street Project” are the pillars of continued GOP rule in the House. Meanwhile, Democrats appear locked in a cycle of decline in the Senate, as the Republicans consolidate their control of all southern and most western and Plains state seats while the Democrats suffer retirements from members who see no prospect of regaining the majority and the party finds it increasingly difficult to field serious candidates. In short, the GOP appears to have a lock on Congress, and the very institutional reforms first spearheaded by liberal Democrats now give the Republican leaders the power to pass, in old Speaker Cannon's words, any elephant they want.

Sam Rosenfeld is a Prospect Web writer.