Minority Mentality; in the House, Majority Rules

Article excerpt

Byline: Gary J. Andres, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the aftermath of the 1994 election, congressional Democrats were shell-shocked and angry - denial was the drug of choice. Horrified by the spate of new conservative freshmen and their leader from Georgia, Speaker Newt Gingrich, one Democrat sneered, "The Beverly Hillbillies just took over. But it's a fluke and won't last long."

Putting on their best "Schwarzenegger," Democrats collectively crowed, "We'll be back."

Today, nearly a decade later, House Republicans remain in charge, and their majority status appears secure for some time to come. This political fact of life is seeping into the Democratic psyche like slow-drip reality therapy, altering their behavior in subtle but important ways. How this trend plays out could have a dramatic impact on congressional politics in the years ahead.

Breaking with their party leadership on key votes in exchange for favorable policy concessions from the Republicans is one example. With partisan unity in Congress on the rise in recent years, Democrats breaking ranks on major issues, like tax policy, was rare.

Yet the tide may be turning. For example, GOP tax writers included provisions popular with the back-home constituents of some Democrats, such as specific tax incentives and the tobacco buyout legislation, to woo certain lawmakers.

It worked. Forty-eight Democrats defied their leadership, joining the Republicans to pass the legislation. "This was one of the first times the Democrats behaved like the Republicans did when they were in the minority," a GOP leadership aide told me. "They're beginning to see that blindly following their party leadership gets them nothing."

Prior to 1994, after 40 years in the minority, some Republicans did the same thing. With nothing to show for strict adherence to their party, these members saw a political advantage in "cutting deals" with the Democrats. It didn't happen all the time, but it was part of what some call the "minority mentality," gathering up a few legislative crumbs in exchange for voting with the opposition party.

Different from the broad-based bipartisan support that emerges on some bills, this is old-fashioned legislative logrolling where lawmakers agree to a broader measure if particularized items get added.

Another indicator of a budding minority mentality is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's recent call for a more equal distribution of procedural rules. Two weeks ago, she asked House Speaker J. …