Introduction: The House|
By Michael Barone
© National Journal Group Inc.
The Framers expected that the House of Representatives would be the prime moving force of the federal government except in time of war. Article I of the Constitution is not about the president, it is about Congress, and the House of Representatives, not the Senate, comes first. The Framers took care to require that all tax laws originate in the House, and by custom appropriations bills originate there too. But in the 20th century's decades of world war and Depression, Cold War and welfare state, Congress became used to waiting for the president's program and then responding, usually with changes at the margins. Then, after the Cold War ended and the Republican won majorities in the 1994 elections, the House took on something of its old role. Led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, armed with the Contract with America that almost all Republican candidates had signed, it started to set the national agenda. Its moment was relatively brief. Bill Clinton's maneuverings during the 1995-96 budget struggle left the president popular and Gingrich a political liability. Even so, the Republican House made its imprint on public policy. The one-year spending freeze led to the balanced budget at the end of the decade. The welfare act passed in 1996 and signed by a reluctant Clinton built on initiatives in the states and settled an issue that had been bedeviling the nation for three decades.
The Republicans are headed to a full decade of majorities in the House, the longest period of Republican control since the years between the 1918 and 1930 elections. Between 1930 and 1994 Republicans won a majority of seats in only two elections, 1946 and 1952. Now they have won a majority in five straight elections -- though by narrow margins. The Republican margins peaked at 235-198 (if Independents are counted with the party they vote with) in December 1995 after party switches and special election victories and has been as narrow as 219-212 in September 2001. Now it is 229-206. But these small majorities have made a considerable difference. The Republicans prevented Clinton from expanding spending as much as many Democrats would have liked. And they provided George W. Bush with a political leverage that his father, elected by a wider margin, never had.
That is because in the House, as it has operated for the last quarter century, having a majority almost always means having control. That has been true since the speakership of Tip O'Neill. Since O'Neill's time in office, the House has become a more partisan and confrontational institution -- whichever party is in control. The partisan atmosphere has been increased by the increasing homogeneity of the parties in the House. The House Republican Conference has become more uniformly conservative and the House Democratic Caucus has become more uniformly liberal. There are exceptions, enough to make a difference on some issues in a closely divided House. But Speaker Dennis Hastert has spent much time holding together his party, and succeeded far more often in doing so than not.
Hastert is not much known to the general public; he seldom appears on interview programs and is most visible when he introduces the president to joint sessions. He came to the office suddenly, in December 1998, when Speaker-designate Bob Livingston withdrew on the day of the impeachment vote; he was chosen because Majority Leader Dick Armey was distrusted after the July 1997 coup against Newt Gingrich and because Majority Whip Tom DeLay was seen, by himself as well as others, as too partisan a figure for the job. But Hastert exerted his authority over Armey and DeLay and has done a fine job in keeping in touch with and keeping faith with all Republican members. DeLay, known as "the Hammer," proved to be an exceedingly able whip, counting votes accurately and putting together majorities before issues get to the floor -- and occasionally while the roll call is going on.
In 2001 the initiative passed to the new Republican president. When Bush came to office, he said he wanted to work with members of both parties, and on one of his key issues, education, he did. A bill was developed by Education Committee Chairman John Boehner and ranking Democrat George Miller and passed with a solid majority, with some conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats opposed. But other legislation took a more partisan path. A prime example was the tax cut. In quick order the leadership and Budget Chairman Jim Nussle and Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas passed a reasonable facsimile of the Bush proposal and sent it over to the Senate. On issue after issue, the House, though closely divided, was a rock of strength for the Bush administration -- prescription drugs for seniors, HMO regulation, trade promotion authority. On a couple of issues the leadership position did not prevail. The farm bill was in the hands of Agriculture Chairman Larry Combest, from a cotton-growing district in west Texas; it heavily favored Southern farmers and could not be stopped. The leadership kept campaign finance regulation off the floor after losing a rules vote in July 2001. But after the Enron scandal broke, there was no stopping it; advocates of the bill got 218 signatures on a discharge petition, and it came to the floor and was passed. The leadership and George W. Bush acquiesced in these defeats; Bush is not a politician who battles for his position on second-line issues when it might fracture his party's majority on others. For the most part the leadership kept Appropriations subcommittee chairmen inside the limits set by the Bush administration -- a source of much friction. In 2002 Armey did not run for reelection. DeLay moved up to Majority Leader and his Chief Deputy Whip Roy Blunt became Whip; appointed to succeed Blunt was sophomore Eric Cantor. It is not widely appreciated, even in Washington, what a competent job Hastert, DeLay and their team have done.
House Republicans have seen continuity in leadership since 1998; House Democrats had an abrupt change in leadership in 2002. At the beginning of 2001, the Democrats' top leaders were veterans: Minority Leader Dick Gephardt had been part of the leadership since 1984 and Minority Whip David Bonior since 1991. But Bonior faced an unfavorable redistricting and decided to run for governor of Michigan; his successor was chosen in a caucus election in October 2001. And Gephardt, after Democrats failed to win back a majority in November 2002, decided to resign the minority leadership and run for president; his successor was chosen in a caucus election in November 2002. The winner of both elections was Nancy Pelosi, heretofore ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. Pelosi's elevation was a break with the tradition: since the 1930s Democrats had chosen as leaders members who had held positions in the leadership. This tradition produced leaders who had generally but not entirely liberal voting records. Pelosi, in contrast, has a voting record among the leftmost in the House and represents a district entirely within the city of San Francisco that in 2000 voted 77% for Al Gore, with 15% for George W. Bush and 8% for Ralph Nader. Pelosi began campaigning for a leadership position in 2000, when it seemed likely that Gephardt and Bonior would be leaving their positions soon and when she and other Democrats were looking forward to regaining the majority, which would give them an additional leadership position. Her base of support was mostly on the left of the party -- the large California delegation, women members, black and Hispanic members. Her opponent was Steny Hoyer of Maryland, an able politician with a somewhat more moderate voting record who had long been on the leadership track. In 2000 he too started campaigning hard for whatever leadership position came open.
Democrats failed to win a majority in the House in 2000, but in 2001 it became clear that Bonior would run for governor and would at some point be unable to be on the House floor all day; he resigned the position effective January 2002. In October 2001 there was an election to replace him, and Pelosi beat Hoyer 118-95. This seemed to reflect the liberal cast of the Democratic Caucus. That was apparent too in the October 2002 vote authorizing military force in Iraq. Gephardt, still minority leader, supported the resolution but did not lobby other members. Pelosi supported it and lobbied other Democrats actively. To the surprise of many, Democrats voted against the resolution by 126-81. In November 2002, after the Democrats lost seats to the Republicans, Gephardt quickly announced that he would step down as minority leader; soon he started running for president. The race to succeed him was quickly settled. Caucus Chairman Martin Frost ran against Pelosi and argued that the party should have a moderate leader. But he counted votes and withdrew from the race. In the last days Harold Ford, a junior member with a moderate record, ran on the same platform. But Pelosi won 177-29.
Pelosi obviously understands that not every House Democrat comes from a district or has a voting record as liberal as hers. But her job is not to hold together a narrow majority but to rally a minority dismayed that it has lost four consecutive House elections by agonizingly narrow margins. Many Democrats emerged from the 2002 election with the conviction that they lost not because they opposed and were seen as obstructing the Bush administration but because they did not oppose it more vociferously. This is probably the most liberal Democratic Caucus ever, and the moderates are split. The Blue Dog Democrats tend to be conservative on cultural issues and liberal on economics; the New Democrat Coalition tends to be conservative on economics and liberal on cultural issues. The likelihood is that Pelosi's Democrats will be a party of vigorous and vociferous opposition -- the way the House minority party has operated since the days of Tip O'Neill.
It is a minority party that, in early 2003, seemed to have less reason to believe that it could become the majority at the next election. Most Democrats surely believed that their party would win majorities in the 1996 and 2000 elections, and not without good cause: they were close run defeats. In 2002 again there was optimism; it was an off-year election and parties out of power usually gain seats in off-years. But in 2002, for the first time since 1952, redistricting worked against Democrats, in two ways. First, it gave the Republicans about a seven-seat pickup; that number is an estimate, and some Democratic experts say that redistricting was of no net benefit to Republicans, but no one says it helped Democrats. Partisan Republican redistricting plans in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida resulted in Democrats losing 7 seats and Republicans gaining 6 seats. That outweighed the Democratic redistricting plans in Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia that resulted in Democrats gaining 5 seats and Republicans losing 2 seats. Republicans were prevented from making major gains in Texas by a court that ruled that the contours of the 1992 partisan Democratic plan should be followed. But Republicans did pick up the 2 new seats there, and the court left it open for the legislature, now controlled by Republicans, to adopt a new plan for 2004. The second way in which redistricting hurt the Democrats was that there were many bipartisan incumbent protection plans that left few seats at risk for either party. California (though Democrats had control), New York, Illinois and Ohio (though Republicans had such control) adopted such plans. So in these four states with 119 seats -- more than one-quarter of the House -- there were only a handful of seriously contested elections, and there are not likely to be many more in 2004.
There are not a lot of obvious targets for either party elsewhere. Only 32 of the 206 Democrats represent districts carried by George W. Bush in 2000; this is down from 46 in 2001. Of these, 23 seats are in the South and 6 in Texas alone; some may fall to Republicans when longtime incumbents retire and some of the Texas incumbents may be endangered if there is a new redistricting. Only 10 of these Democrats have had experience holding their seats with a popular Republican president in office. Republicans are even less vulnerable. Only 26 of the 229 Republicans represent districts carried by Al Gore in 2000; this is down from 40 in 2001. Of these, 16 seats are in the Northeast and 8 in New York and New Jersey. All but 3 of these Republicans had the experience of running while a popular Democratic president is in office. Pelosi's choice as campaign committee chairman, Bob Matsui, has talked of targeting districts which by most standard criteria would seem hard to win; and in the circumstances this is probably a smart strategy. Regaining the majority may turn out to be a four or six-year project for House Democrats; their prospects for winning control in early 2003 seemed the worst at this stage of the cycle since 1927. But the Republicans' lead is not huge. And prophecy is a risky business. Few observers in early 1993 thought the Republicans would win a majority of House seats in 1994, but they did. No one should rule out the possibility that events that have not yet happened or events that have not yet been foreseen could produce a Democratic majority in the House once again.
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