- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

Early in 1995, after House Republicans assumed majority control in Congress, party leaders called a strategy meeting of GOP legislators to hear from then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. The only space big enough was the cavernous Energy and Commerce Committee hearing room in the Rayburn building.
Hanging on every word of the architect of the Republican Revolution, GOP House members sat enthralled by Newt's bold vision. But 10 minutes into the speaker's speech, an aide abruptly grabbed his elbow.
Apparently, there was a microphone in the committee room possibly broadcasting the proceedings directly into the personal office of former Democratic Chairman John Dingell. The speaker suspended his remarks as Republican staff, new to controlling the levers of power, as well as the electronics, feverishly yanked on wires, flipped switches and ultimately called for help turning off the mike.
Welcome to adventures on the "political learning curve."
Appreciating how new situations affect the performance of elected officials is key to understanding politics and governing throughout American history. Contemporary politics is no exception. The learning curve will be a factor over the next several weeks as members of the House and Senate wrestle with a relatively unprecedented institutional circumstance: split-party control of the Congress.
Split-control occurs when one party holds a majority in the House and the other in the Senate like the current Congress. It is a relatively rare phenomenon, unlike "divided government," where one party controls the White House and the other holds majorities in both houses of Congress, which has become the norm in Washington over the last 50 years. Congress faced split-party control only four times in the last half-century (the current Congress and three Congresses in the 1980s). And the present situation, with Democrats controlling the Senate and a Republican majority in the House, hasn't occurred for more than a half-century.
Examples of adventures on the learning curve abound.
Republicans in 1995 faced huge obstacles after 40 years of Democrat control. A Republican House leadership staffer reflected: "Organizing hearings, writing committee reports, managing parliamentary questions in committees and on the floor were all things we had never done before. It was a totally new experience." These activities are not learned overnight and usually require large doses of institutional memory. It's like asking someone who watches a lot of golf on TV to play in the Masters.
The strains and challenges of split control began after Sen. Jim Jeffords' switch last year, but expect even more intense and interesting effects as deadlines for year-end spending bills, pressure to pass Homeland Security legislation, and the crunch of adjournment approaches.
Earlier this year, legislation on Trade Promotion Authority, a key provision of President Bush's legislative agenda, was stalled when the House and Senate failed to agree on who would chair the conference committee. As Democrats and Republicans bickered, the legislation languished and trade negotiators lost precious time in reaching new agreements.
This year's fiscal 2002 supplemental appropriations bill also got bogged down at several points in the process because of partisan wrangling between Republican appropriators in the House and their Democratic colleagues in the Senate.
Bracing for the worst, many congressional insiders fear the tricky nuances of split-party control and learning curve problems will lead to a train-wreck on year-end spending issues in the next few weeks.
In the last five years, Congress typically passed continuing resolutions or combined a number of appropriations measures into an "omnibus" bill as budget deadlines approached. While the House and Senate Republicans might have gone along with such an approach to appease President Clinton in the past, Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd seems loath to accept such an approach. Congress and the White House will have to learn how to adapt to this new reality.
"With the Democrats running the Senate and the Republicans in charge of the House, getting agreement on 13 appropriations bills between now and Oct. 1 is nearly an impossible lift," one Republican leadership aide told me.
Differences between the House and the Senate or Republicans and Democrats are constants in American politics. The Framers guaranteed that by insisting on bicameralism and other institutional checks on the power of government. But split-party control is a relatively rare situation; it injects a whole new dimension to the current governmental makeup. Watch this fall as both parties begin frantically pulling wires and flipping levers as they take a steep ride on the learning curve and see how government really works, or doesn't.


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