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Incivility in the House of Unrepresentatives: Washington Post Reporter Juliet Eilperin Scrutinizes the People's House


Friday, Jun. 02, 2006

Currently, about two-thirds of America disapproves of the job the Congress is doing. In a few months, however, they can do something about it when they elect the 110th Congress.

What is to be blamed for this overwhelming displeasure with Congress? While Congress-watchers are aware of the source of the problem, few others understand more than the fact that in the House, rancor has replaced reason - at the expense of Americans.

The U.S. House of Representatives is the true battlefield of contemporary national politics. Since 1994, Republicans have controlled the House, and since that time Juliet Eilperin has been covering the House for States News Service, Roll Call, and the Washington Post. (In 2004, she began covering the global environment for the Post.)

Eilperin thus is uniquely qualified to write about the House, and the title of her new book nicely sums up her take: Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning the House of Representatives. The book is her account of "how the House of Representatives became the House of Unrepresentatives."

It would be difficult to be more fair and balanced than Eilperin has been; nonetheless, she acknowledges, at the outset of her report, her view that Republicans "have failed to live up to their own promises of reform" - their 1994 contract with America "to reclaim the House for the American people." While she finds both Republicans and Democrats at fault for the current state of affairs, her journalistic analysis of the "dysfunctional" House holds Republicans responsible, in particular, for failing to honor their promises.

But this is not a polemic or effort to castigate either party. Rather, Eilperin wants those who are not familiar with the partisanship and incivility to understand what it is doing to "the people's house." Accordingly, she seeks to explain why she believes it is occurring, and to consider what, if anything, can be done.

The 1994 Shakeup of the House: Republicans Win Control, and Make Changes

Republicans won control of the House in 1994, after forty years in the political wilderness and several decades of trashing the Democratic leaders of the House, and portraying the body itself "as an evil institution." Newt Gingrich and other backbenchers relentlessly and endlessly attacked for over a decade, charging Democrats with misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance - or worse. Republicans promised they would do better if given a chance to lead.

Once in control, the GOP leadership made fundamental changes in the operations of the House. None was more dramatic than eliminating the powerful fiefdoms of committee chairmen who had obtained their posts though seniority alone, under both Democratic- and Republican-controlled Congresses. Under the new Republican rule, chairmen were to be selected by the leadership based on a combination of seniority and willingness to play ball with the leadership.

The idea was that the Speaker would centrally control the House by controlling committee assignments and chairmanships. "Gingrich made it clear from the outset that committee chairs answered to the leadership and, by extension, to the entire Republican Conference," Eilperin writes.

Gingrich and his team imposed a host of other reforms upon taking control in 1994. They ended proxy voting in committees, which required members to actually stay to participate in the mark-up of legislation. They placed term limits on chairpersons, and imposed management and budgetary controls on the operations of the House, while eliminating patronage jobs in the mailroom and similar sinecures.

GOP leaders were more generous than their Democratic predecessors in providing at least a third of committees' budgets to their minority staff. (Democrats operated on a four-to-one or five-to-one ratio.) But they soon literally closed Democrats out of participating in the legislative process. Straight party-line votes prevailed in committees, and to entice special interests to fund the "Republican revolution," many committees all but outsourced their work to the interested parties.

No change was more apparent than the aggressive fundraising from special interest groups by the GOP leadership -- who, in turn, doled out the loot to those lower in the pecking order, and demanded strict party loyalty. Seeing the success of the Republicans in controlling their party, Eilperin shows how Democrats followed suit - becoming just as partisan and money hungry as the their Republican counterparts.

The 1994 shakeup, and the ensuing Republican control, has made the House into a bitter political battleground. To analogize the warring parties to "fight clubs" may add more respectability than is deserved.

Polarization of the House: A Climate of Dislike and Distrust

"[I]t is hard to exaggerate how much House Republicans and Democrats dislike each other these days," Eilperin writes. Leadership on both sides discourages fraternizing.

A rare member -- Collin Peterson a Democrat from Minnesota -- who occasionally sits with Republicans, told Eilperin that the members of the House from the other side of the chamber "don't know each other, they don't like each other, and they don't trust each other."

Because of the House's size (it has 435 members) legislation arrives at the floor for consideration under a "rule" that is written for each bill. Today, the rules typically preclude amendments on the floor, and the committee chairperson, and ranking minority member, are given limited time to parcel out to others, in two-minute increments.

Limiting time in this fashion means that there is no real debate; rather, there are two-minute scripted speeches, mere sound bites, which Eilperin notes "encourage pithy, partisan attacks." Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, an acute observer and longtime member, rhetorically asked Eilperin: "What can you do in two minutes?" Answer: "Insult the other guy."

Life in the House, meanwhile, actually encourages animus.

Members seldom move their families to Washington today; rather, the family remains in the home district. Thus, congressional families no longer interact across party lines as they once did. In days past, it was an insult to be a member of the "Tuesday to Thursday" club, but today it is a "badge of honor," with members leaving Washington on Thursdays and returning on Tuesdays, for just three days a week in Washington.

Members no longer take foreign trips, as they used to, where they got to know one another. The House dining room makes a high school cafeteria look absolutely collegial by comparison, for Republican and Democrats stay with their own.

It was during the Clinton impeachment that I noticed how low civility in the House had sunk, for it had gone not merely into the tank, but the sewer. When the House GOP leaders insisted on impeaching the popular president, notwithstanding the fact that neither the nation, nor even the majority of Republicans, wanted such action, the House reached what I thought was its nadir. Unfortunately, it has never recovered, and has even gone lower. (My observation, not Eilperin's.)

Eilperin makes the point, however, by including in her Appendix the moving extemporaneous speech delivered by Minority Leader Richard Gephardt the morning that Speaker designate Bob Livingston announced he would leave Congress in light of charges that he had cheated on his wife. "We need to end this downward spiral which will culminate in the death of representative democracy," Gephardt pleaded, but the spiral continued down.

Another Key Issue: Gerrymandering Ensures Incumbents Keep Power

Eilperin shows not only how the operations of the House have resulted in its divisive ways and means, but also, and more importantly, how "House members - aided by their state counterparts - have rigged the system to guarantee that they, and politicians who think like them, return to Washington year after year." Incumbents have always had an advantage in getting reelected; but the House has rigged it so that they have an even smoother path.

Employing the oldest trick in legislative shenanigans, Republicans (joined by Democrats) have made "The Gerrymander" of Congressional districts a new art form. Aided by computers, and the demographic shifts of the past few decades, Republicans have been able to not merely reach parity with the Democrats, who have greater numbers, but also to lock in their gains.

Eilperin finds that redistricting has created extremist candidates, squeezing out the centrist and moderates of both parties. Her discussion of the uses and abuses of redistricting is at the core of her report, and deserves more than my passing reference. I highly recommend that readers consult her book itself on this, and the other issues I've noted. Unfortunately, congressional redistricting is considered about as interesting as statistical regression analysis by most people. But Eilperin's real-world discussion and analysis is neither dull nor difficult to understand.

Americans will never control the House of Representatives so long as congressional districts are rigged - to favor either party. Until redistricting is made fair and reflective of the national interest, excessive partisanship and incivility are likely to continue.

What Is To Be Done? The Steps the New Congress' Leadership Can Take

"It's going to take some cataclysmic voter reaction," former congressional leader Billy Tauzin told Eilperin. This remark was echoed by others. We should all hope that the public disgust needed to get the House back into the democratic process will be expressed in this year's campaign and election.

Even if it is not, however, there are some steps that the leadership of the 110th Congress can take that can address the current incivility.

Eilperin clearly solicited the thoughts of those she interviewed, and received a number of solid proposals. Opening debate on the House floor, and returning to the five- minute rule would help. Forcing members to stay in Washington, and getting to know each other, would remove animosities -- for it is difficult to attack one's friends. One member suggested that "the House should be in session five days a week for three weeks in a row, with one week off - so members can get to know each other."

Democrats say the answer is to put them in charge. But I agree with Eilperin that such a change will alter nothing unless Democrats offer Americans a new contract, one that will make civility and bipartisanship the order of the day, and Democrats must show how and why they can be trusted to end the rancor that rules today.

So far, Democrats are offering nothing other than new faces to replace Republicans. What, if anything, would Democrats do to end the fight club politics and partisanship that has poisoned the House of Representatives? That's what voters should be asking during the 2006 Congressional campaign, and both parties owe them answers.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the President.

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