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There’s a smell of old Democrats here

Carl P. Leubsdorf The Dallas Morning News

An internal revolt this week forced House Republican leaders to drop part of an effort to protect themselves in general – and Majority Leader Tom DeLay in particular – from ethics investigations.

But they did pass a new rule making it harder to bring ethics charges against DeLay, or any other member. And they adopted, as a rules change, a potentially far-reaching provision that could cut the number of members needed to act after a terrorist attack.

So despite one tactical retreat, Tuesday’s actions – taken on straight party-line votes – only underscored the increasingly autocratic way that Republicans have run the House since they took control and promised to end the undemocratic practices of its previous Democratic rulers.

Both procedurally and substantively, Republican leaders have not only adopted many tactics Democrats used but have gone beyond them in limiting the ability of the Democratic minority to play a role in crafting legislation.

It was a decade ago that the GOP took control of the House for the first time in 40 years and set forth an impressive agenda of procedural and substantive reforms.

Many dealt with problems created by the Democrats: a burgeoning partisan staff, secret committee meetings and proxy voting, dictatorial chairmen, lax ethics and sloppy management.

The stated goal was to make the House more democratic by ensuring the minority the right to offer floor amendments, budgeting in a fairer, more businesslike manner and curbing institutional autocracy with term limits for the speaker and committee chairmen.

But the GOP set an important tone by opting to run things on a partisan basis with only rare efforts to seek Democratic support.

To be sure, House leaders have always exercised more control than in the Senate. I recall covering a bill back in the 1960s when the Democratic chairman announced at the beginning of an eight-hour debate there would be no time-consuming quorum calls. And there weren’t.

Still, the presence of many conservative Southern Democrats often forced Democratic leaders to reach out to moderate Republicans. Even at the peak of their power in the 1960s, they passed key civil rights and tax cut bills with bipartisan support.

Today’s House is more ideologically polarized, making bipartisanship inherently more difficult. And the GOP has had to operate with small majorities, meaning that its decision to run the body on a partisan basis required keeping its own members in line.

To do so, it has increasingly controlled the writing of major bills, often barring Democrats from offering floor amendments, withholding the details until they are ready to be passed, and limiting the role of Democrats in Senate-House conferences.

GOP leaders have been quite successful in passing major Bush initiatives, ranging from tax cuts to prescription drugs under Medicare, but far less successful in managing the government’s fiscal business. Promises to control spending have gone awry, for a variety of reasons, and the two houses have often failed to pass bills to fund the government on time.

Pressures on them will likely increase this year, given Republican divisions on details of such major Bush priorities as Social Security privatization and immigration reform. GOP leaders may come to regret their success in defeating moderate, compromise-seeking Democrats like former Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Abilene, Texas.

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s decision to make it harder to bring ethics charges is the latest weakening of rules that once seemed so vital to the GOP. The move drew criticism, though not opposition, from the chairman of the ethics panel, Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado.

His comments came at a time when GOP leaders are reportedly planning to oust Hefley, who presided over last fall’s actions admonishing DeLay, in part for actions during the Texas redistricting battle.

Republicans are correct that the congressman had served the limit of four terms on the panel. But the party showed no hesitation in waiving a similar limit on the tenure of its speaker, ensuring that Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois can enjoy the extended tenure that is being denied to the party’s outspoken ethics chairman.

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