Magazine article Insight on the News

A Coup from within? Democrats Suspected of House Power Play

Magazine article Insight on the News

A Coup from within? Democrats Suspected of House Power Play

Article excerpt

The Dec. 8 and 9 meeting of the House Democratic Caucus produced two potential rule changes for the House of Representatives that set off Republican alarm bells across the country.

Although both rules must pass the full House this month before taking effect, the substantial Democratic majority virtually assures that the decisions made by the caucus will be adopted. While the changes are being called necessary reforms by Democratic House members, Republicans on Capitol Hill smell a power grab by the House leadership, an attempt to further cement Democratic control of Congress.

The first rule change would grant new voting privileges to the delegates from the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands, and to the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico. These so-called nonvoting delegates take part in committee work but have no power under the Constitution to vote on the House floor. However, because the full House almost always meets under a parliamentary procedure known as the Committee of the Whole -- the committee made up of the entire membership -- the new rule allowing delegates to vote as members of that committee would give them virtually all the powers of representatives. The five individuals affected by the rule change are Democrats; their new power would effectively cut in half the Republican gain of 10 seats in the November elections.

Equally controversial was the caucus's proposal to curtail after-hours speeches by members on the floor of the House, known as special orders. Televised on C-Span, the speeches give members a chance to hold forth on whatever topic they desire after the day's official business is concluded. Announced as a cost-cutting effort aimed at limiting staff hours, the change (which would prohibit special orders after 9 p.m.) appeared to some to be an attempt to stifle members -- particularly Republicans -- out of favor with House leaders, who control the microphone during official business.

Neither move endeared the caucus to GOP representatives, who have vowed to fight back.

Republican threats to disrupt the 103rd Congress and spoil the Clinton honeymoon already have sidetracked the proposal to limit special orders. House Speaker Tom Foley has agreed to place the matter in the hands of a bipartisan committee, whose six members are still to be named. Skeptical Republicans note that whatever the committee's conclusion, House Democrats still have the votes to do what they want. History has made the Republicans despondent.

"The Democrats treat the Republicans half the time as if they are not there," says Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute. He notes that unlike in the Senate, where control shifts back and forth between parties, the Republicans in the House have no credibility to threaten retaliation when they are in charge; they have not controlled the chamber since the 1950s. "You don't have any tit for tat in the House," says Moore. "It's not like [House Minority Leader] Bob Michel can say [to Foley]: |You know, in a few years we're going to have the House'."

If special orders are curtailed, it would be a considerable blow to the GOP's already limited power in the House. "It's going to be vital for Republicans to have this forum," says Mark Crain of George Mason University, author of Televised Legislatures. As he points out, the speeches televised by C-Span, besides allowing the public direct access to House proceedings, also are a way for members to reach the media, whose ranks include a fair number of C-Span junkies. In this way, special orders ultimately can reach a broad audience.

During the Carter presidency, when Republicans faced a similar situation of a hostile White House and minority status in both houses of Congress, the after-hours speeches were used effectively to both attack the party in power and get the GOP message out to voters.

More recently, the influence of special orders was demonstrated by members such as California Republican Bob Dornan, with his highly publicized attacks on Bill Clinton's draft record and travels to Moscow, and Texas Democrat Henry Gonzalez, who used special orders to draw attention to Iraqgate. …

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