By Elizabeth Wilner and Chuck Todd
Sunday, February 19, 2006
Back in 1992, seven upstart Republican freshmen forced real change in the House of Representatives.
Egged on by a more senior revolutionary, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), these feisty newcomers exploited the House Bank and Post Office scandals unfolding on the watch of a longtime Democratic majority. The GOP lawmakers even posed for a poster, a macho black-and-white group shot. "The Gang of Seven," the caption read. "We closed the House Bank. We're changing Congress. Join the fight."
Today, as a lobbying scandal plays out on the watch of the Republican majority in Congress, the question is: Where is the Democrats' Gang of Seven? Why isn't some spirited group of junior House Democrats capturing the public's imagination and sinking its teeth into the spreading Jack Abramoff mess? And where is the Democratic equivalent of Gingrich?
In Congress, reform often comes from the back bench. Junior members have the least to lose and the shortest -- and thus usually the cleanest -- records. These unlikely agents of change are often change's biggest beneficiaries. Five of the members of the Gang of Seven still serve in Congress. One, John Boehner (Ohio), just became the House majority leader; one, Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), could conceivably become the Senate majority leader (provided he gets reelected); and one, Rep. Jim Nussle, may win election as governor of the swing state of Iowa.
And yet, after languishing in the minority for more than a decade, the Democrats' back bench has yet to produce a Gang of Seven or an insurgent leader such as Gingrich, who inspired dozens of GOP House candidates in 1994. Most of the Democrats elected since the Republicans took over in 1994 simply replaced other Democrats. Moreover, none was really elected on a message of bringing "change" to Congress.
The absence of a Democratic Gang of Seven is even more glaring given that there hasn't been much new blood flowing into the House leadership. Not a single ranking member (i.e., the top member of the minority party) on 21 House committees came to office after the Republicans took control. And in only five instances has a GOP committee chair been in Congress longer than his Democratic ranking-member counterpart.
Even in the majority, Republicans are better about promoting new members. Although Gingrich is gone, one part of his legacy remains: six-year term limits on committee chairmanships. As a result, Republican members, including reformers, climb higher, faster. But Democrats continue to take a top-down approach to ordering their ranks in Congress. Old-timers -- and in many cases, old-time liberals -- still lead the party's charge in many fights. Look at the roster of Democratic ranking members; the only relatively recent arrival (1994) is Bennie Thompson of Mississippi on the Homeland Security Committee, which is a new panel.
If Democrats were to gain control of Congress this November and made no changes to their current lineup, nine of their new committee chairs would be members who won their first elections before 1980: David Obey (1969), Ike Skelton (1976), George Miller (1974), John Dingell (1955), Henry Waxman (1974), John Conyers (1964), Nick Rahall (1976), James Oberstar (1974) and Charlie Rangel (1970). These folks would oversee major committees. Faces of change they are not.
House Democrats have been slow to promote younger members of their ranks in part because of the lessons that current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) learned at the knees of skilled machine politicians, including California's Phil Burton and her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., who rose through the Democratic ranks in Baltimore. Machine politicians are reared on a seniority-based, pay-your-dues regimen.
This style of leadership, which Pelosi also inherited from Democratic predecessors such as former House majority leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) and former House speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (Mass.), punishes those who speak out too much and can have the effect of suppressing young firebrands.
Pelosi recently told reporters that she does seek to promote younger members, noting the "major role" some of them played in quashing President Bush's proposed overhaul of Social Security. However, it's hard to give any young rank-and-filers credit for that when there was a multimillion-dollar partywide effort to rally grass-roots outrage.
Back in the early 1990s, Gingrich and the Gang of Seven did not only attack Democrats; those insurgents also stormed their own party's ramparts and took on the GOP's moderate leaders and senior members. Not so with younger Democratic members today. Because Washington has become more partisan, there is tremendous pressure on Democratic members to fall in behind a unified party message. Republican party leaders and Bush administration officials are quick to point out dissent within the Democratic ranks and cast it as a sign of weakness.
The longer they linger in the minority, the more desperate Democrats are to grab hold of an issue they might ride to majority status. The Abramoff scandal, in the hands of the party's Hill leadership and national committee strategists, went straight from spark to media wildfire with no time to do the kind of slow burn among a small group of reform-minded members that the bank and post office scandals offered the Gang of Seven.
The overlooked part of the 1994 revolution is that this landmark in our modern political landscape took time. There were GOP rumblings in the 1990 budget wars, followed by the 1990 election of some dynamic Republican freshmen. A message of change doesn't bring success overnight; it takes cultivation and cajoling, badgering and bludgeoning and a joyfully rebellious spirit that House Democrats appear to sorely lack.
Chuck Todd is editor in chief of the Hotline. Elizabeth Wilner is political director of NBC News.