Intervention Time: GOP Should Rein in Chairman Thomas

Posted July 22, 2003 at 6:04pm

Boy, did I not want to write this column. Fresh off a wet kiss to Congressional leaders for their class act in the Distinguished Service Awards, I can’t avoid dealing with the utter embarrassment that hit the House on Friday. [IMGCAP(1)]

My column last week lamented the awful atmosphere in the House and lauded the landmark bipartisan relationships that have flowered, including the one between Reps. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) on pension reform. So of course, the blowup in the House would occur over the Portman-Cardin pension reform bill — one of the few major bills in this entire Congress with broad bipartisan support.

Here, in basics, is what happened: Intensive negotiations over some of the key and controversial provisions in the pension bill, which had been going on for months, reached a peak late last week as Members negotiated over such delicate matters as what benchmarks companies would use to determine their pension obligations and value. A markup was scheduled for Friday morning. A revision of the bill was pulled together very late Thursday night by the Republican majority on the Ways and Means Committee and became the benchmark on Friday. The Democrats’ leaders on the committee were not notified in advance and were given only a few hours to digest a huge bill (91 pages). They objected vocally to the lack of notice and time and the lack of deliberation. They called for the reading of the bill — which, line by line, would take the clerk a few hours — and left the committee en masse to protest, going to the committee library nearby. Left behind was senior committee member Pete Stark (D-Calif.) to make sure nothing untoward happened.

Then a whole lot untoward happened. The exact chronology is a bit cloudy, but Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) called the Capitol Police to evict the Democrats from the library. Turning to the business at hand, Thomas noted (correctly), ‘The minority can delay but it cannot deny.” So after letting the clerk drone on for a short while, he decided to take away the minority’s ability to delay. He asked for unanimous consent to dispense with the reading of the bill and slammed the gavel down before Stark could speak. When Stark vociferously objected, Republican Scott McInnis (Colo.) articulately and eloquently told him, ‘Shut up.” (It reminds one of the classic Ring Lardner Jr. line: ‘Shut up,” he explained.)

The 71-year-old Stark responded to the 50-year-old McInnis with his characteristic understatement: ‘You little wimp. Come on. Come over here and make me. I dare you.” Amid laughter, Stark added cogently, ‘You little fruitcake. I said you are a fruitcake.”

Three hapless police officers arrived at the library. Faced with the prospect of handcuffing and forcibly ejecting a bevy of Members, they prudently called the Sergeant-at-Arms, who prudently decided to stay out of the dispute. It soon spilled onto the House floor, with a Democratic resolution to chastise Thomas rejected on party lines, and some more tough words.

How do we sort this out? First, this was not basically a dispute about the pension reform bill. To be sure, this is a controversial bill. Changing the benchmarks could be a boon to businesses, and critics argue that it could make pension assets more vulnerable. Nonetheless, this bill had the support of at least five Democrats on Ways and Means and probably around 100 Democrats on the House floor. That is genuine broad bipartisan support and, as I noted above, a genuine rarity.

The reaction of Ways and Means Democrats reflected a broader pattern of disregard for them and their prerogatives. This was not the first time they had been left unnotified about rewrites of bills or schedule changes or actions. It was not the second, or third time. On Ways and Means, the norm now is to treat the minority as if it doesn’t exist, not just by steamrolling over it but by finding ways to humiliate it in the process. To be fair, Ways and Means is not alone in this approach and attitude; other committees have been known to behave this way. But under Chairman Thomas, it has become the limiting case.

I actually have had a good and cordial relationship with Thomas over many years, talking to him many times about issues of the House, campaign reform and other institutional matters, as well as policy issues. He is as smart and articulate as anybody in the House. His command of tax and health policy is breathtaking. But he has let his control of the gavel take him way over the line in the arrogance and arrogation of power. His behavior was just plain stupid. It was arguably foolish to take a bill that had always had bipartisan involvement and turn it at the last minute into a partisan draft. It was even more foolish to push the markup without giving Democrats time to look at the bill. It was beyond foolish to deny the minority the petty satisfaction of delay — which is, in fact, about the only satisfaction the House Democrats can get, given the impressive discipline of the majority Republicans.

At worst, Thomas and his colleagues would have had to sit for a few hours while the bill was read and could then move on their version. To call out the police was rash and counterproductive. To misuse the gavel and declare unanimous consent when it clearly wasn’t there was simply outrageous. When you have the numbers and you have the rules to get your way, why distort and misuse the rules for additional advantage?

Of course, Thomas is not alone in his culpability or shameless behavior. Take Pete Stark. Remember Estelle Getty’s character in ‘The Golden Girls”? She was the old lady who had lost the brain function that kept her from saying whatever popped into her head. That is Stark, who seems to be in an Olympic-level competition with Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) to compile the largest number of embarrassing, offensive and over-the-line comments in the history of the House. At least this time, he was provoked in a foolish effort by McInnis to pile on the humiliation. And McInnis’ and his colleagues’ after-the-fact explanation that they feared for McInnis’ physical well-being doesn’t pass the laugh test of anybody who has actually seen the two men.

From the early 1980s on, in print and in person, I warned House Democrats that they were foolish and wrong to shut Republicans out of the process and would pay a price for doing so. The House is built to act, and the majority has multiple tools to make things happen. But if it goes out of its way to ignore and humiliate the minority, it will ultimately regret it. You can only go so far with the votes of your own party. And there are times and issues where the only solution for the country is broad, bipartisan coalitions. Negate that possibility and eventually both the capacity to govern and the public’s confidence in your institution will dissipate.

By the early 1990s, the Democrats had actually radicalized moderate Republicans like Rep. Nancy Johnson (Conn.). It was no wonder that then-President Bill Clinton’s first and top priority, his budget plan, could not attract a single Republican vote in 1993. The roiling atmosphere in the House that year and the next contributed significantly to the GOP landslide in 1994.

If Democrats, when they were in the House majority, jammed through plenty of bills without Republican participation and turned off moderate members of the minority, their highhandedness was nothing compared to what House Republicans are doing now. Longtime Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) foolishly ignored many of the constructive ideas that came from his GOP counterpart, then-Rep. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.), and frequently steamrolled Republicans in the committee. But I cannot recall a time when Rostenkowski didn’t at least notify the Republicans on the committee when he was going to do so. And Rostenkowski tried to build some committee esprit, through retreats and other events to allow give-and-take among all the members.

It is time for Republican leaders to stage an intervention with Thomas in the same way friends and family confront an alcoholic. They need his talent, experience and knowledge about taxes, health policy and the other key issues in Ways and Means. But his disputes with House Democrats and Senate Republicans like Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) could easily lead to self-destruction and a larger problem for the House majority. But the intervention should not stop with Thomas. This is not just a problem of one individual. I mentioned last week that the majority leadership has denied the Democrats access to the Cannon Caucus Room or other large meeting rooms when they wanted to caucus. That sort of petty nonsense just has to stop.

Two giants of Congress, both Republicans and both party leaders, just celebrated remarkable milestones: former House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) had his 90th birthday and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) his 80th. They must have cringed at the spectacle in the House. Quite a birthday present their successors in Congress provided for them.