House Republican leaders moved swiftly last week to tighten and centralize control of the new Congress by replacing uncooperative committee chairmen and changing the chamber's rules to deter ethics investigations of leaders.
The Republicans expanded their majority by only three seats in the Nov. 2 election, yet party leaders have been emboldened by GOP domination of all branches of government and appear determined to squelch dissent in their own ranks and to freeze Democrats out of key decisions.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) moved to force out the ethics committee chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who supported three formal admonishments of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) last year, and ousted the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee for failing to toe the party line on spending. The GOP leaders also rammed through a change in House rules to make it more difficult in the future to file an ethics complaint against DeLay or other members.
A Republican leadership aide said the strategy for the week was to undermine any effort by Democrats to make DeLay as divisive and symbolic a figure as former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was in his day. "They want to 'Newter' DeLay -- to isolate him and make him the issue, not any policy issue," the aide said.
But Republicans had already made other changes, both large and small, to diminish the influence of Democratic lawmakers. For instance, Republicans have made it harder for Democrats to offer amendments to pending bills or participate in conference committees, where House and Senate versions of bills are reconciled. Democrats complain that Republicans even make it hard for voters to reach Democratic committee Web sites by making users going through the majority's home page. Republicans respond that the system is designed to avoid confusion since there is only one committee, and add that if they wanted to be tyrannical, they would not let the minority have Web pages at all.
Democrats and some Republicans, troubled by the moves, cite parallels between today's Republicans and the Democrats who lost their 40-year hold on the House in 1994 after Gingrich and other conservatives campaigned against them as autocratic and corrupt, and gained 52 seats.
"It took Democrats 40 years to get as arrogant as we have become in 10," one Republican leadership aide said.
Julian E. Zelizer, a Boston University history professor who edited the 2004 anthology "The American Congress," said Republicans used the past week to "accelerate the trend toward strong, centralized parties."
"This is a move toward empowering the leadership even beyond what you saw in the 1970s and 1980s," Zelizer said. "They have been going for broke."
Republican lawmakers acknowledge that they are acting partly out of Darwinian necessity. With a narrow 232 to 201 margin over Democrats, and a historical tendency for the party holding the White House to lose seats in midterm elections, the Republicans say they cannot afford defections or internal dissension.
The Republicans' first piece of business upon returning to the Capitol was to approve a new set of operating rules, including one that would curtail future ethics investigations. Under the change, a vote from at least one member of each party would be required before the ethics committee could begin an inquiry. The committee is evenly divided between the two parties, and under the old rules a deadlock meant an investigation began automatically. Now it will take the affirmative vote of at least one Republican to launch an investigation.
"It was necessary to depoliticize the ethics committee and force investigations to move on a bipartisan basis, not on a partisan one," the leadership aide said.
Under pressure from some GOP lawmakers who feared their leaders were going too far, the House backed away from another provision that would have made it even more difficult to discipline lawmakers for unethical behavior, and rescinded a Republican rule approved last November that would have allowed DeLay to continue as majority leader even if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury investigating political fundraising.
But in apparent retribution for the admonitions of DeLay, Hastert has begun looking for a replacement for Hefley, who was viewed as too independent. Republicans assert that the change is occurring only because, according to the House parliamentarian, Hefley has served the maximum number of terms on the committee that rules allow.