The surest sign of how much things have changed in Congress was found on the front page of The Washington Post’s Style section on successive days last week.
On Thursday, the congressional opening day celebrations of Rep. George Nethercutt were chronicled in the capital’s bible of who’s hot and who’s not.
Nethercutt was painted in expansive prose as a latter-day Jimmy Stewart in his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” role. His family was declared wholesome and his wife, Mary Beth, compared to a stylish Michelle Pfeiffer.
On Friday, a story describing how quickly a somebody becomes a nobody started with an anecdote about former House Speaker Tom Foley being ignored at a Kennedy Center gala. “The minute he lost the election, he was moved from the A list to the C list. And within a period of months he will probably be moved off altogether,” writer Roxanne Roberts quoted an anonymous Hill veteran as saying.
If anyone doubted that show and substance are intertwined in this city, the first three days of the Republican Congress surely convinced them.
Count as show most of the rule changes that House Republicans passed in the first-day marathon session.
Count as substance the fact they did it by racking up increasing bipartisan vote counts as day turned to night and night to morning.
That was the great political reality of the first week: Democrats were forced by Republicans to go along with changes they could have made themselves and taken credit for last year.
Some of the week was spent in the biennial renewal of Congress. Enjoy it while it lasts, veteran lawmakers advised new members.
Part of the week was also spent adjusting to an alignment that no current member of either chamber has seen - a Democrat in the White House and Republicans controlling both houses of Congress.
After the initial shock of being in the minority, some Democrats like Washington Sen. Patty Murray felt liberated from the weight of governing; some Republicans like Sen. Slade Gorton predicted the House would be the engine of change and urged against doing too little.
House Republicans argued the rule changes they made are not mere show. They held a news conference Friday to recap the changes - in case anyone missed something Wednesday night through inattention to detail or having the bad grace to fall asleep after midnight - and to proclaim them once again as historic.
“We fundamentally changed the way Congress does business,” said event organizer Rep. Susan Myrick of Ohio.
In the spirit of bipartisanship, Myrick said, the GOP invited Democrats to attend the media event and extol the virtues of the changes. Only one showed up, and Rep. Bill Brewster of Oklahoma took care to identify himself as “a conservative Democrat.”
Brewster quickly left the room after saying nice things about a rule that makes all laws passed by Congress apply to the House and plugging a $20.5 billion crime bill he is sponsoring.
Reporters had no questions for Brewster, but they were interested in trapping Myrick on her claim of bipartisanship.
How many Democrats were invited? asked a reporter.
Some, she replied. Which ones? the reporter asked.
We’ll have to get back to you with the names, said Myrick, adding it was time to wrap up the news conference so the assembled lawmakers could get back to committee hearings.
While the bipartisanship may be doubtful, Myrick proved some freshmen are quick learners at dodging the news media.
Democrats spent the week downplaying the rule changes.
Some Democrats shrugged off the rule that requires a three-fifths vote for any income tax increase with a reminder that no one is proposing an income tax increase.
Others trashed the notion that the rule that applies “the laws of the land” to Congress is historic. It was done last year, at Foley’s insistence, when Senate Republicans balked at passing such a law, said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
“We made history once, you can’t make it twice unless you flunked it the first time,” said Frank.
He was right but irrelevant. The rule passed 429-0.
If Frank and other Democrats had the good sense to propose the changes in January 1993, last week could have been different.
Newt Gingrich might not be speaker, and nearly 100 freshman lawmakers might not be running around telling anyone who listens that their voters are telling them Congress needs to end business as usual, clean up its act and obey the laws of the land.
The voters, the taxpayers and the people were invoked frequently in the opening days of the 104th Congress. Every new member appeared to have a favorite story about a convenience store owner or a burger stand operator who was wronged by federal regulation.
By week’s end, invocations starting “the people” were as overworked as “Happy Newt Year,” “Under Newt Management” and other puns being made about the new speaker.
But some of “the people” who made pilgrimages to the opening of Congress offered occasional irony.
Take for example the conversation of an Idaho lobbyist and his companion, overheard as they made their way through the Capitol to a Northwest senator’s office.
Stepping from a brass-doored elevator, the lobbyist recalled how Idaho Sen. Dirk Kempthorne campaigned in 1992 against the waste embodied by the lifts, which are equipped with push buttons but usually have operators running them.
An even better campaign commercial, he recalled, involved Kempthorne blasting the subway system that runs from the trio of office buildings to the Capitol.
“So senators wouldn’t have to walk to their meetings. It was a great campaign commercial for Dirk,” the lobbyist said, boarding one of those very subway cars that whisked him off to his meeting.
The scene exemplified a quality not unique to this Congress.
Every two years, new candidates are elected by campaigning on what’s wrong with government.
Every two years they have some degree of success keeping those campaign promises. They experience some degree of difficulty in not being co-opted.
Things can change drastically in two years, said Washington’s Murray.
One of the fresh Democratic faces who accompanied Bill Clinton to Washington on an agenda of change, she is now in the Senate minority.
She understands the euphoria of the House Republicans over the passage of the rules they promised through the Contract with America. She felt the same way when the Senate passed the Family and Medical Leave act early in 1993.
She doesn’t deeply regret the loss of her majority status.
“In the majority, you have to live with what’s passed. You have to be responsible for every word,” she said.
In the minority, one can draft legislation more on principle than practice. “I can be idealistic.”
Control of the agenda could prove the most substantive change that occurred last week.
By Friday, the struggle for control of what happens in the next few months appeared most likely not to be between the parties, but between House Republicans and Senate Republicans.
No one in Congress has experienced the current alignment - Democratic president, Republican House, Republican Senate.
But Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., has served through every possible alignment of partisan control of the Senate and the White House, and prefers the current configuration to all others.
No more mushy compromises between a Republican president and a Democratic Congress; no more responsibility for Ronald Reagan’s agenda, no more mushy compromises between George Bush and the Democratic majority.
“We have made a set of promises. … now it’s up to us to produce,” Gorton said.
House Republicans will drive the agenda, he predicted.
The changes the House passed in one long night of tightly scripted debates could take weeks in a filibuster-prone Senate.
But if Republicans make mistakes - which is almost inevitable, Gorton said - they should commit sins of commission, not sins of omission.
“We’ve got to take risks. The public is more likely to repudiate us if we do nothing.”
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