In scuttling major intelligence legislation that he, the president and most lawmakers supported, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert last week enunciated a policy in which Congress will pass bills only if most House Republicans back them, regardless of how many Democrats favor them.
Hastert's position, which is drawing fire from Democrats and some outside groups, is the latest step in a decade-long process of limiting Democrats' influence and running the House virtually as a one-party institution. Republicans earlier barred House Democrats from helping to draft major bills such as the 2003 Medicare revision and this year's intelligence package. Hastert (R-Ill.) now says such bills will reach the House floor, after negotiations with the Senate, only if "the majority of the majority" supports them.
Senators from both parties, leaders of the Sept. 11 commission and others have sharply criticized the policy. The long-debated intelligence bill would now be law, they say, if Hastert and his lieutenants had been humble enough to let a high-profile measure pass with most votes coming from the minority party.
That is what Democrats did in 1993, when most House Democrats opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement. President Bill Clinton backed NAFTA, and leaders of the Democratic-controlled House allowed it to come to a vote. The trade pact passed because of heavy GOP support, with 102 Democrats voting for it and 156 voting against. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House GOP leader at the time, declared: "This is a vote for history, larger than politics . . . larger than personal ego."
Such bipartisan spirit in the Capitol now seems a faint echo. Citing the increased marginalization of Democrats as House bills are drafted and brought to the floor, Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) said, "It's a set of rules and practices which the Republicans have taken to new extremes."
Price, a former Duke University political scientist and the author of "The Congressional Experience," acknowledged that past congressional leaders, including Democrats, had sometimes scuttled measures opposed by most of their party's colleagues. But he said the practice should not apply to far-reaching, high-stakes legislation such as NAFTA and the intelligence package, which were backed by the White House and most of Congress's 535 members.
Other House Democrats agree. Republicans "like to talk about bipartisanship," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "But when the opportunity came to pass a truly bipartisan bill -- one that would have passed both the House and Senate overwhelmingly and would have made the American people safer -- they failed to do it."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a White House aide when NAFTA passed, said this week, "What is more comforting to the terrorists around the world: the failure to pass the 9/11 legislation because we lacked 'a majority of the majority,' or putting aside partisan politics to enact tough new legislation with America's security foremost in mind?"
Some scholars say Hastert's decision should not come as a surprise. In a little-noticed speech in the Capitol a year ago, Hastert said one of his principles as speaker is "to please the majority of the majority."
"On occasion, a particular issue might excite a majority made up mostly of the minority," he continued. "Campaign finance is a particularly good example of this phenomenon. The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority."
Hastert put his principle into practice one week ago today. In a closed meeting in the Capitol basement, he urged his GOP colleagues to back the intelligence bill that had emerged from long House-Senate negotiations and had President Bush's support. When a surprising number refused, Hastert elected to keep it from reaching a vote, even though his aides said it could have passed with a minority of GOP members and strong support from the chamber's 206 Democrats.
Hastert spokesman John Feehery defended the decision in a recent interview. "He wants to pass bills with his majority," Feehery said. "That's the hallmark of this [Republican] majority. . . . If you pass major bills without the majority of the majority, then you tend not to be a long-term speaker. . . . I think he was prudent to listen to his members."
Some congressional scholars say Hastert is emphasizing one element of his job to the detriment of another. As speaker, said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, "you are the party leader, but you are ratified by the whole House. You are a constitutional officer," in line for the presidency after the vice president. At crucial times, he said, a speaker must put the House ahead of his party.
If Congress eventually enacted an intelligence bill similar to the one rejected last Saturday, Ornstein said, "then it would be unfair to rip Hastert to shreds. But if this either kills the bill or turns it from what would have been" a measure with considerable bipartisan support, he said, "then I think he should be condemned roundly."
Some groups representing families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are already criticizing Hastert. "The failure in leadership of the speaker to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote is particularly troubling because we believe the bill would have passed by a wide majority in the House," the Family Steering Committee said.
In the new Congress that convenes in January, Hastert's strategy may prove sufficient for GOP victories on issues that sharply divide the two parties, such as tax cuts, several analysts said. But on trade issues and other matters that are more divisive within the parties -- and thus require bipartisan coalitions to pass -- he could face serious problems.
Hastert's "majority of the majority" maxim, Ornstein said, "is a disastrous recipe for tackling domestic issues such as entitlement programs, the deficit and things like that."