Democratic Rep. John Dingell, the partisan “old bull” who for years ran the House Energy and Commerce Committee will turn into a veritable bipartisan pussycat if voters return control of the House of Representatives to the Democratic Party next year. No less an unbiased authority than The Washington Post reported this week that senior Democratic lawmakers in the House, having “learned from their mistakes,” are determined to pursue “extensive consultations with Republicans over the legislative agenda and work schedule” if they regain control of the House in next year’s elections. They will even consult with the Republican Party concerning the ratio of Democrats to Republicans on committees “something the GOP leadership has never done,” The Post hastened to add. And if you believe all that, do they have a bridge to sell you.
Discerning a “striking transformation in the congressional Democratic Party over the past five years,” The Post attributed the Democrats’ evolving olive branch strategy to “the fatigue many lawmakers are feeling over the poisonous partisanship on Capitol Hill.” No doubt many Democrats who for years wielded unchecked power in the House as committee and subcommittee chairmen have discovered that partisanship seems far more “poisonous” now that they are members of the minority party. Relations between the parties were far from harmonious during the Reagan and Bush presidencies and the first two years of the Clinton administration when the Democrats ran the House every bit as autocratically and heavy-handedly as they now accuse the Republican majority of running the chamber. Indeed, as the nonpartisan Almanac of American Politics has observed, “Forging majorities with moderate Republicans was difficult because Democratic leaders had mostly refused to deal with them when they had a majority.”
To confirm the Democrats’ intention to pursue bipartisanship, The Post quotes former Rep. Vic Fazio, who, as it happens, was a Democratic House leader during the party’s autocratic rule. “People are going to be a lot more … willing to compromise,” Mr. Fazio asserted utterly unconvincingly. Rep. Benjamin Cardin, who has authored a transition plan, insists that “Democrats will work very close with Republicans” once they have regained majority status.
Now, it is simply impossible to comprehend the notion that Democrats will become a majority party interested in bipartisanship. Who can imagine a Democratic Party led by Speaker Dick Gephardt and Majority Leader David Bonior pursuing a moderate agenda in an effort to achieve bipartisan consensus? Mr. Gephardt expressed complete disgust with the 1997 balanced-budget compromise President Clinton reached with Republican congressmen. With Messrs. Gephardt and Bonior leading the opposition, Democrats voted against the compromise by a 177-to-27 margin. In fact, among the 22 prospective Democratic committee chairmen and party leaders listed by The Post, 20 had voted against the balanced budget compromise. All, of course, voted against the impeachment articles after Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee, led by ranking member and presumptive chairman John Conyers, had turned the committee hearings into a partisan charade.
Where, one wonders, is the prospect for bipartisan compromise? Rep. David Obey, who would become chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was described by the Almanac of American Politics as “a true believer in traditional liberalism, in Keynesian economics and in economic redistribution.” Rep. Charles Rangel would become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. According to the most recent ratings by the National Journal, Messrs. Gephardt, Bonior, Obey and Rangel each were ranked in a tie as the House’s most liberal members on economic matters.
Clearly, more than any other member, the speaker will influence the agenda. And Mr. Gephardt’s agenda hardly seems amenable to compromise. As recently as June 1999, Mr. Gephardt proposed a substantial increase in federal spending on education. Where would the money come from? “You’ve got to have a combination of taking it out of defense cuts and raising revenue,” he said. He also rejected the bipartisan compromise on Medicare reform that had been endorsed by Democratic Sens. John Breaux and Bob Kerrey. He opposed Social Security reform and welfare reform. Free trade was the one issue that enjoyed bipartisan support during Mr. Clinton’s first term. Yet it is Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Bonior who are among the most protectionist Democrats, having opposed NAFTA, the World Trade Organization and fast-track negotiating authority for President Clinton.
Compromise and bipartisanship under a Gephardt-Bonior regime? The idea is so absurd that it takes The Washington Post to believe it would likely occur.