These legislative whisperers were kicked out of the Capitol

The Democratic Study Group got the Gingrich boot but kept cracking bills

The end of the Democratic Study Group on Capitol Hill was part of the transition of power in the House from committees to leadership.
 (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The end of the Democratic Study Group on Capitol Hill was part of the transition of power in the House from committees to leadership. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 10, 2020 at 6:30am

With each new Congress, lawmakers get a chance to tweak and tease out their chamber rules — a little change to the motion to recommit here, a return of earmarks there.

But 26 years ago, House Republicans were taking charge with their first majority in decades, and they wanted more drastic changes. That included kicking out of the chamber the organization that had illuminated the legislative process for Democrats for years, the Democratic Study Group.

Those House staffers eventually ended up at CQ, revamping as House Action Reports, or HAR, where they still publish detailed analysis of what ends up on the House floor.

Where it started

The Democratic Study Group was formed in 1959 by liberal and progressive Democrats, though not progressive in the sense we would think of today, says Robert Tomkin, deputy director of HAR, who originally worked for DSG.

The founding members were concerned about being shut out of the legislative process by conservative Southern Democrats, many of whom led committees. The bottleneck of information kept rank-and-file members from understanding what was coming up for a vote.

“Because of the dynamics of Congress back then, a lot of members were just unable to either have a lot of input or in the end actually know what they were voting on,” Tomkin said.

At the group’s first organizational meeting, 40 lawmakers showed up. The group would grow to 250 dues-paying members in 1980, settling back to around 200 during the rest of the 1980s, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

The founders “believed in open government, they believed in transparency, they believed that congressional leadership before that was really holding information back from them,” Tomkin said.

While DSG would publish special reports with a policy angle, the root of its work was objectively detailing the legislation and amendments coming to the floor. 

“Members knew that we would tell them exactly what’s in the bill, what its problems were, what its controversies were, what amendments were likely. And they just couldn’t get that anywhere else,” says Kerry Jones, who joined DSG in the 1970s and rose to be its legislative director and later director at CQ.

Booted from the House

With nearly the whole of the House Democratic Caucus as members, the Democratic Study Group was a major resource for the party. It was one of many legislative service organizations, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, formed by members.

DSG staff worked in congressional office buildings and were funded from lawmakers’ dues.

The newfound GOP majority, led by incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich, seized on that funding model. In December 1994, the conference voted to end legislative service organizations, and the move became official when the House adopted the rules for the 104th Congress at the beginning of the session in January.

The groups as they remained couldn’t hire staff or use dedicated office space in Capitol buildings. Lawmakers couldn’t use their allowances to fund them.

When Speaker Newt Gingrich came to power in 1995, he took aim at legislative service organizations. (Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call file photo)

More than 150 DSG members signed on to a letter protesting the rules change, calling it “an effort to censor opposing views, and to deny the primary source of information to the minority party as we embark upon a furious legislative schedule,” according to the CRS report.

It was an abrupt goodbye for the Democratic Study Group, whose staff had to leave their office by the end of January — and were escorted out by Capitol Police, Jones said.

Around 20 staff tried to scrape together an operation outside the House using a loan from the AFL-CIO. They borrowed computers old enough to have orange type on black screens. Their printing press had been taken when they left the House, so they bought “an elaborate Xerox machine” to print their work, Jones said.

The group set up in the Fairchild Building near the Capitol — called “the stepchild building” by staff, Jones says — where the landlord shut off the lights and heat early in the evening, not ideal for a job that often necessitated late nights. Staff would bring blankets and lamps to work.

“I still have images of people being bundled up and trying to stay warm being over a computer keyboard and everything and writing things up,” said Chuck Conlon, now director of House Action Reports.

Moving to CQ

House Democratic leaders talked with DSG about potentially bringing them into their offices, but the party was “just devastated” adjusting to changes under Gingrich’s leadership and the GOP majority, Jones said. 

“It was a long time before they turned any attention to us. And frankly, we noted that,” he said.

DSG staff were also concerned about losing their objectivity, which they had stuck by to the extent that they sometimes drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers defending their own projects.

Then CQ leaders approached DSG about coming into the company. “The entire DNA was infused with this type of nonpartisan, analytical ethos, which essentially is what CQ was all about. And so that part wasn’t much of a transition at all,” Tomkin said.

The staff who worked on nonpartisan analysis moved to CQ under the newly coined House Action Reports. Conlon and Tomkin stuck around to lead the team today.

Looking back, the end of the Democratic Study Group was part of the transition of power in the House from committees to leadership, as well as an increased emphasis on party unity, Jones said.

“It’s hard to single out how it affected them, because at the same time other changes — that were, frankly, from the institution’s point of view, more profound — were happening,” he said.