Thursday, January 11, 2007
Sam Farr sits back in a leather chair in his office, gazing out the window and speculating about the future. In his red-checkered shirt and goofy green frog tie, he looks like a man permitting himself a rare day of celebration. Tomorrow, Democrats take control of Congress after more than a decade of rancorous partisan politics under Republican rule. “A new day for the world,” Farr calls it.
But there is a fly in the ointment, Farr is saying. Yesterday, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, President Bush hinted heavily that he won’t hesitate to use the veto on anything he deems too ambitious.
“I think he’s being advised to hold the line and not let the Democrats have any successes,” Farr says, digging a ringing Blackberry out of his pocket. “Hey Wayne, Happy New Year.” A voice at the other end of the line squawks a greeting. Farr immediately relays the news that the newly elected House leadership has assigned his marine conservation bill a low number, which means it is a high priority.
“We need your help,” Farr says. “We got HR 21 for the oceans bill, and we need you to co-sponsor it.” The Blackberry squawks again. “You know we love you,” Farr replies.
The conversation winds down and Farr tucks his phone away. He’s just invited Wayne Gilchrest, a Republican Congressman from Maryland and Farr’s co-chair in the House Oceans Caucus, to co-sponsor a bill that, strictly speaking, doesn’t need Gilchrest’s help. The Democrats are running this House now, and the bill’s probably a slam-dunk; Farr could ignore his Republican colleague. But that’s not Farr’s style. As his chief of staff, Rochelle Dornatt, says, “Sam’s not an animal of the politics of this place.”
Democrats have vowed to avoid the bullying that marked the past decade in Congress. “We know what it’s like to be in the minority,” Farr says. But with so much to do and a belligerent GOP for a partner, the Democrats’ commitment to bipartisanship is already showing signs of wear.
• • •
The week following New Year’s was an extraordinary time in Washington. There was a former president to be buried with all the pomp befitting his office and lots of street closures. In the always-turbulent city government of the District of Columbia, there was a new mayor to be inaugurated and a smoking ban to be cheered or lamented. And as the 110th Congress convened on Capitol Hill, there was history to be made in the election of the nation’s first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
On top of all this, throughout the week an unseasonable warmth coaxed the cherry trees to bud.
It’s always easy, amid the marble and ceremony of Washington, to believe that every event taking place inside the District is momentous. And to be fair, the signposts of history were ticking past last week, pointing the way to global warming, gender parity and the twilight of tobacco.
But the event that dominated headlines by week’s end had a different feel. It was more urgent, more uncertain, less an incremental step toward an anticipated outcome than a lurch into pitch blackness.
The swearing-in of the first Democratic Congress in 12 years was the truly historical event of the week. What happens in the next two years—and in the election that follows—will influence whether the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans continues to widen, whether the middle class collapses or holds up, whether education and health care and a secure retirement become luxuries only the wealthy can afford, whether Americans regain their civil liberties, whether the US can wean itself from oil, and whether Iraq, and by extension the Middle East, implodes or stabilizes.
All this will be negotiated in the still-toxic atmosphere of Capitol Hill.
It’s a small but telling detail that at Gerald Ford’s funeral earlier in the week, almost every speaker praised the former president and Congressman for his “decency.” The eulogists lauded Ford, a moderate Republican who served four terms as House minority leader, for his skills as a bipartisan politician. This highlighted the fact that bitter partisanship and downright indecency have become so prevalent in our nation’s capital that ordinary good behavior is noteworthy.
Officially, all that’s now supposed to change. Officially, we are entering a new era of bipartisanship. But that’s not going to be easy.
How tough should the Democrats be? That is the question on everyone’s mind. They urgently want to stanch the flow of blood and treasure to Iraq, and to stop the assault on the middle class, civil liberties and the environment. But they’re nervous about replicating Republican hardball tactics and turning off voters in 2008.
“You don’t want to lose it in two years because you made somebody walk the gangplank,” Farr says.
As the Democrats struggle to find the line between the moral high road and the ditch, Republicans last week adopted the smirking pose of bullies who have lost a battle but remain supremely confident of winning the war.
During Pelosi’s speech, as I sat in the Capitol Building’s press gallery, a reporter walked in with a mischievous look on his face. The Congressional press corps is a gimlet-eyed group of nerds given to earnest debate about policy trivia and also to snickering over political gossip, and this guy was thrilled to bring his pals a juicy morsel. Passing through the office of Republican Minority Whip Roy Blunt, he’d overheard some staffers’ reactions to Pelosi’s speech. “When she said that stuff about ‘bipartisan’ and ‘working together,’ Blunt’s guys were like, ‘Good luck! We’re not gonna work with you at all!’”
• • •
On Jan. 4, swearing-in day, there’s no shortage of evidence proving just how tough things will be for the Democrats. At noon, just as the new House is being sworn in, a rally coalesces across the street from the Capitol, demanding that the president be impeached.
As usual, the anti-Bush demonstrators put on good theater. There’s a guy in a devil’s suit with an oversized George W. mask, and a dozen people dressed like Guantanamo inmates in orange jumpsuits and black hoods. It’s your standard get-out-of-Iraq-now, stop-the-torture, impeach-the-president-today rally. They’re not giving the Democrats a moment to bask in their new power.
I run into a demonstrator I met four years ago at a Code Pink march on the day the war started. He was the only guy at that rally in a suit, and he had a fake-bloody bandage around his head. Today it’s just the suit, but he gleefully brandishes a copy of this morning’s Washington Times. The lead story trumpets the headline: “CINDY SHEEHAN ROUTS THE DEMOCRATS.”
The story reports that yesterday, as the House Democratic Caucus held a press conference announcing its priorities, a ragtag group led by anti-war protestor Sheehan interrupted with chants of “De-escalate! Investigate! Troops home now!”
The Times, a conservative daily that carries a regular column by Oliver North and is no ally of the Cindy Sheehans of the world, exulted to see the Democrats squirm. Politics does make for strange bedfellows.
As it happens, Sheehan is standing just a few feet away. “It was totally random,” she acknowledges. “We started chanting and they left the podium and the press invited me to speak.”
Sheehan tells me that she believes impeachment is not only possible but necessary. “It has to happen for the future of our country, to show future presidents that they’re not above the law,” she says, adding that the movement has “lots” of allies in Congress.
It’s impossible to dislike Sheehan, who is cloaked in sadness and serenity and seems to exude goodness. But the call for impeachment of the president seems hopelessly naive after seeing what the Democrats are up against.
Inside the Capitol, lawmakers and their spouses, children and friends are milling around, dressed to the nines.
The House Ways and Means Committee room is teeming with African-Americans mingling and enjoying a modest banquet. Among the crowd are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group that strongly supported Pelosi—many of these lawmakers speechified glowingly at her swearing-in as Speaker an hour ago. But the scene in Ways and Means carries a two-pronged message: while the black leaders celebrate the ascent to the chairmanship of longtime Caucus member Rep. Charles Rangel, they’re also noting the absence of their colleague William Jefferson, the Louisiana congressman who was caught last year with $90,000 in his freezer. As a disciplinary measure, Pelosi kicked Jefferson out of Ways and Means, and the Black Caucus wants him reinstated.
While Democratic leaders face internal challenges and criticism from the left during their first week in power, a squall is rising from across the aisle.
Yesterday, in a remarkable display of thespian aptitude, a group of Republican lawmakers wrenched themselves into the pose of martyrs speaking truth to power, demanding a “Minority Bill of Rights.” Smugly, longsufferingly, the group demanded that high-handed tactics in the lawmaking process be avoided, pointing out that their request was identitical to one Pelosi submitted in 2004 to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert. They have continued to rail against the gross injustices about to be inflicted on them by the incoming majority.
The Republicans are not completely off base—the Democrats are launching the 110th Congress by unilaterally ramming a raft of legislation through. But the alleged victims of this display of power fail to mention two key facts that undermine their claims of unfairness. One: When confronted with the Democrat’s Minority Bill of Rights two years ago, Hastert utterly ignored Pelosi’s plea and continued running roughshod over the minority. Two: Republicans will be cut out of the legislative picture for a measly two weeks. After that, new “civility rules” kick in, restoring by law what was granted by custom until Newt Gingrich and the ’94 Republican freshman class went brass knuckles on the Democratic minority.
But for now, the Republicans are milking their disadvantage for all it’s worth, doing their best to portray the victors as ruthless partisans. This morning at a press conference, Minority Whip Roy Blunt—whose minions lobbed verbal spitwads at Pelosi’s image in the safety of their office—described his powerlessness in base terms: What he really needs for his new job, he said, are kneepads.
• • •
Pelosi swept into office in her claret-colored suit with a strong message that business as usual would no longer be tolerated on the Hill. First to go was the day-and-a-half work week.
Farr says Congress “has always been a Tuesday-Thursday club,” cramming legislative work into a short week so representatives can stay in touch with their districts. But over the last few years, he says, it had devolved to a Tuesday-evening-through-Thursday-morning gig. Under Pelosi, the House will be in session from Monday evening (to accommodate those traveling from the West Coast) until Friday.
Pelosi also scrapped the practice of extending the winter holiday through late January, and replaced the long vacation with a “First 100 Hours” agenda that started on the afternoon of Jan. 4. This consists of six measures that Democrats campaigned on: raising the federal minimum wage; requiring the negotiating for lower drug rates for Medicare; implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission; expanding stem cell research; cutting interest rates on student loans in half; and ending subsidies and loopholes for big oil companies, while redirecting the revenue to a new “green energy” fund.
The challenge for the Democrats in the 110th Congress is to quickly make some big gains before the public grows impatient and the 2008 campaign intrudes. In a wily maneuver taken from the Republicans’ own playbook, the Democrats solved their problem by folding these six measures into a single piece of legislation: House Resolution 6.
HR 6 is a tiny little vehicle carrying a huge load. Officially, it’s merely the law governing the new rules of the House—normally a routine piece of business. Not this year. This year it’s freighted with significant provisions. What’s more, nothing in HR 6 can be discussed or amended—and that’s why the Republicans are hollering. It’s a huge all-or-nothing bill. In the new Democratic House, it is certain to pass, and the Republicans can’t do a thing about it.
Setting aside the six major pieces of legislation that it contains, the rules of HR 6 are a big deal in and of themselves. They commit the House to a pay-as-you-go budget, which means every spending increase requires a source of revenue to fund it.
Farr says that has enormous implications for the budget. Finding revenue—by raising taxes, or repealing the Bush tax cuts which benefit the wealthiest Americans—is out of the question. Anything like that would be vetoed, Farr says. “People think, now that the Democrats are in Congress, everything can get fixed,” he says, “but we’re committed to pay-as-you-go.”
HR 6 also contains a major ethics reform package banning gifts from lobbyists, including free travel on corporate jets. All travel paid for by outside groups will have to be certified by the ethics committee. Legislation containing earmarks directing federal money to a specific recipient will have to be accompanied by a list explaining who benefits.
The HR 6 package also contains the so-called Civility Rules. No longer will the House be able to extend its 15-minute limit on floor votes in order to twist arms and reverse the outcome.
Also outlawed is the dodgy practice of holding conference committee meetings without bothering to tell the minority party about it, or changing a conference report after it’s been signed without telling anyone. The Republican majority of the last several years would literally rewrite laws after the fact without letting the minority even see the revision. “It’s incredible that there has to be a rule about this is,” says Jessica Schafer, Farr’s spokeswoman.
• • •
Zoe Lofgren, Democratic representative from San Jose and chair of the 53-member California delegation, says Democrats are not interested in revenge. But they could hardly be blamed if they were. While Republicans ruled the House, she says, Democrats were treated with no respect.
“They would just grind the minority,” she says. “They abused the rules. You couldn’t get anything on the agenda.
“We’d have full committee meetings and the Republicans would have already decided what to do. All you could do was hope.”
The Republicans in the California delegation, led by Schwarzenegger-champion David Dreier of Los Angeles, were so uninterested in working with Democrats that they refused to attend state delegation meetings—not even for the purpose of getting more federal money for California, which is a “donor state” that pays more in taxes than it receives in federal services.
“They’d show up for the photo op with Schwarzenegger,” Lofgren says, “but they would not meet with us. I finally started putting it in writing. We sent them a letter on November 15 and we still haven’t heard from them.”
Rochelle Dornatt, Farr’s chief of staff, has worked on the Hill for 27 years. She’s ambivalent about the Democrats’ tactics during the first 100 hours.
“Already we’re starting to see some of our commitments waver,” Dornatt says. “An ethics bill will go to the floor and the Republicans won’t have had an opportunity to comment. So right away we’ve made an exception to our rule.
“But,” she says, “sometimes you have to put your foot down and say, ‘This is the way things are going to be,’ because that’s what being a leader is.”
Dornatt worked for Majority Whip Tony Coelho in the 1980s, before the Republican takeover. She says Congress was different then. There was more comity between the parties, she says, and Coelho always tried to rustle up Republican support for Democrat-sponsored bills. She says that ended with the arrival of Newt Gingrich.
“Part of it is how you look at the institution. This is supposed to be ‘the People’s House.’ If it only speaks to the people who are in the majority, then the rest of the population is disenfranchised.
“That’s what Newt Gingrich has wrought. I lay squarely at his feet the poisonous atmosphere we have today. I don’t know if Pelosi can tamp that down. They don’t see any reason to cooperate with us. They want the leadership back.”
Farr makes no apologies for Pelosi’s decision to strong-arm the Republicans in the first 100 hours. “They want to have open rules, floor debate, and she’s saying, ‘No, we’re not going to let you kill these bills,’” Farr says. “These things were already debated, in the last session. There’s a firmness there. We’re going to be fair, but we’re going to be firm.”
After those bills are passed, Farr says, the hard work begins. One priority will be to rein in the president’s wanton spending habits by inserting triggers for funding, including for Iraq.
“We’re not going to cut funding on Iraq, but we are going to have a hell of a debate about it,” he says.
“I don’t think we should put any more money into Iraq,” he adds. “I think it’s going to be a bloodbath whenever we leave.”
A federal fix for the health care system, Farr thinks, will be modest. “We’ll probably get some of the low-hanging fruit, maybe early childhood health care guarantees, or negotiating prescription drugs for seniors.”
He’s excited about his oceans bill, which would take the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the National Marine Sanctuaries, out of the Department of Commerce (always a head-scratcher) and give it independent status akin to that of the Environmental Protection Agency. Farr has a few other pet projects, such as a trail around Monterey Bay, and permanent funding for the Center for Stabilization and Reconstruction Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Farr’s excited, but Dornatt believes her boss has no idea what delights lie in store.
“The Congressman was only in the majority for about 18 months,” she says. “I don’t think he really got a taste for what you can do. But there are a lot of senior people on staff who do know what that means. I think Sam will enjoy the rich flavor of it!”
An example comes right away, on the evening of the swearing-in. A scant handful of lawmakers are on the floor of the House, debating HR 6.
“This isn’t pay as you go. This is tax as you go!” snaps Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas.
“Let there be light, let there be transparency—and not just after the first 100 hours,” intones Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia.
“A partisan slap across the face,” sniffs Lee Terry, Republican of Nebraska.
“I understand your pain,”purrs Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter. “I understand your hurt. I understand that you are not sure we’ll be fair and honest…but we’ve got a lot of work to do. Let me pledge to you that we have no time for vindication or revenge.”
To which Dreier, outgoing Rules committee chair (and a man whom Slaughter has called “a prick,”) testily replies: “I never said the word ‘pain,’ I never said the word ‘hurt.’ I said ‘disappointed.’ We are prepared at this moment, Madame Speaker, to go upstairs and start working on an ethics package, but we haven’t even had the right to have our amendments rejected in the Rules committee.”
Several hours and a couple of time-wasting procedural votes later, the debate about the ethics package of HR 6 begins. The members of the minority, having now registered their dismay and gone through the motions of trying to get HR 6 sent back to committee—a doomed enterprise, of course—have changed their tone. It now seems they find the ethics portion the bill insufficiently strict. One by one, they rise to complain that it doesn’t measure up to their lofty ethical standards.
“I’m in support of this package,” says Dreier. “The issue of ethics reform is very, very important. [But ] why wait until March 1 to impose new rules? Why not impose an immediate travel ban? I do believe these are good rules. I don’t believe they go far enough.”
Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, replies: “The other party was in power for 12 years. There was ample opportunity to change the status quo. The March 1 deadline—that’s to give the subcommittee time to put meaningful standards in place.”
“This isn’t good enough!” Terry says, adding that he doesn’t understand why the Democrats rejected the ethics reform package Republicans introduced last year, which he says was virtually identical to this one. McGovern replies that the Republican ethics package was much weaker.
That night, the ethics reform measure passes 430 to 1.
For a couple of sweet weeks, this is how it will go. Aided by their brief imitation of the Republicans, and over the howling of the GOP, House Democrats will get to see their agenda through after 12 long years. After that, the party of Nancy Pelosi is likely to discover that no matter how much you want to play nice, you can only do it if your opponent wants to play nice too.