The Judiciary Panel: A Mix of Extremes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 1998; Page A01
The House Judiciary Committee that is on the brink of taking up the impeachment of President Clinton is a kind of flawed mirror of America. Instead of a true reflection of the country's moderate political character, it projects a sharpened and amplified image of the nation's cultural and ideological extremes.
From the conservative white Christian men who make up most of the Republican majority, to the diverse stew of left-leaning liberal Jews, blacks and women among the Democrats, the membership is laced with zealous, tart-tongued veterans of the ideological battles that most divide the nation: the fights over abortion and gay rights, affirmative action and flag-burning.
For Rep. Thomas M. Barrett (D-Wis.), being cast into this pit in the heat of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal has been a bit of a shock.
Barrett, a three-term liberal member of the House, was appointed to the committee on Sept. 11. Naively, he now realizes, he looked forward to lofty debates about the Constitution, carried out in a "what's best for the country" style.
What he landed in instead was a partisan food fight, with members sniping at each other in executive session and in front of television cameras. "I thought there would be a little more of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington there," he recalled. "I walked in and saw it wasn't that way. There's nothing august about it."
To Barrett, this brush with reality has raised a profound concern. "This is a committee that attracts polar opposites," he said. "One of the challenges is how do we bridge that gap."
In 1974, seven Republicans joined 13 Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee in voting for some or all of three articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. Whether the present committee of 21 Republicans and 16 Democrats can rise above deep, partisan divisions will determine its place in history and, quite likely, affect the climate of American politics for months or years to come.
In addition to having to overcome deep ideological differences, the committee's Republicans and Democrats face each other across a wide cultural divide. On the GOP side are 20 white, male Christian conservatives from predominantly suburban or rural districts. Only one, Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), is from the Northeast.
On the Democratic side are six Jews, five blacks, three women and one declared homosexual, Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.). They represent mostly urban districts, or new suburbs with a heavy smattering of minorities and immigrants. Only one, Rep. Rick Boucher (Va.), is a white male Protestant. Six are from the Northeast, including two from boroughs of New York City, Reps. Charles E. Schumer and Jerrold Nadler.
It is a far from 1974, when moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats on the committee blurred the ideological and cultural edges of the parties. Since then, analysts say, sweeping changes in American demography and politics have transformed the Judiciary Committee. The result was the departure of moderates and members from closely-contested congressional districts and an influx of hard-line conservatives and liberals attracted to the ideological confrontation.
"The committee has gotten more polarized due to the rise of issues such as busing, abortion, and the death penalty," said Frank, who adds that the geographical skewing of Democratic and Republican members simply "reflects ideology."
Others echo that analysis. As social and cultural issues moved to the center of American politics over the last two decades, replacing to some degree bread-and-butter economic issues, the Judiciary Committee became the burned-over turf where both parties pushed the agendas of their "base" constituencies, with an eye to the next election.
In its least-noticed role -- holding hearings and initiating legislation covering copyrights, patents, anti-trust and the operations of the courts and Justice Department -- the committee performs a government oversight and business regulation function that is typical of other congressional committees.
But its sweeping jurisdiction over issues involving the constitution and crime has given it a powerful, and relentlessly controversial say in what Democrat Nadler calls "the non-economic side of the conservative and liberal agendas."
In fulfilling that role, the committee takes up such "hot-button" issues as impeachment; affirmative action and racial hiring quotas; gun control; the death penalty; sentencing guidelines; adult punishment of juvenile offenders; gay marriage; and doctor-assisted suicide.
During decades of Democratic control of the House, the Judiciary subcommittee on civil rights and the constitution served as the engine room for the Democratic effort to expand the rights of blacks, women and other minorities. It spawned the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other major initiatives.
Some initiatives, such as the ERA and legislation codifying women's rights to abortion, ultimately failed, but still served to rally key constituencies behind the Democrats at election time.
With the victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the rise of a well-organized Christian Right, the battleground in the committee shifted and Democrats increasingly found themselves on the defensive.
When former representative Don Edwards (D-Calif.) went on the Judiciary Committee in 1963, it was "very classy to be on it . . . and a lot of fun." But that had changed by the time he retired from Congress as chairman of the civil rights and constitution subcommittee in 1994, he said. "The anti-abortion people got stronger and gradually because of [the abortion issue] and the death penalty it became a less popular committee."
"It became difficult to recruit members to the committee because the issues became wedge issues that were used in elections," said a Democrat who has followed the committee for more than 20 years. "It became tough to be on a committee where virtually every vote taken could be used in a campaign ad."
"You have to have committee members who are really eager to engage in debate on these issues, and a district where they won't by threatened by that," said Alan F. Coffey Jr., a Judiciary Committee veteran who retired recently as staff director.
At the same time, sources say, the Democratic and Republican leaderships began applying their own political litmus tests for committee membership.
Nadler recalls that former chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) checked his civil liberties record before inviting him to join.
Barrett, the newest Democratic member is a Roman Catholic, but supports abortion rights. Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.), the only woman in the committee's GOP majority, is also the lone Republican supporter of abortion rights.
When moderate Republican Rep. Tom Campbell (Calif.) returned to the House in 1995 after an unsuccessful run for the Senate, his resume read as if he had spent his whole life preparing for a seat on the Judiciary Committee.
Campbell had served on the committee already, during an earlier tour in Congress from 1989 to 1993. He was a tenured professor of constitutional and anti-trust law at Stanford University. As a Supreme Court clerk in 1976, he had helped draft the Bakke decision that established new, and more conservative guidelines for the use of affirmative action and job quotas to redress workplace discrimination.
But instead of Judiciary, Campbell got his second choice, the Banking Committee. According to informed Republican sources, the GOP leadership was unwilling to appoint a supporter of abortion rights and gun control legislation.
On the Democratic side, according to Frank, the process has been "more self-selecting," with less control from the leadership. But the result has been the same on both sides: Democratic and Republican members with more liberal or conservative voting records than their fellow party members in the House.
The committee has attracted firebrands on both sides. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who represents Watts and South Central Los Angeles, scene of rioting in 1992, has used her rhetorical wrath against GOP-backed legislation to crack down on criminals. In 1996, she endorsed the theory that the CIA had aided the Nicaraguan contras in drug dealings that introduced crack cocaine to Los Angeles ghettos.
She has asserted, "I don't have time to be polite."
Arrayed on the opposite side of the crime issue are Republican members who support the death penalty and adult punishment for some juvenile offenders.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) led an effort to remove weight-lifting equipment from prisons as part of an anti-crime bill, and Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), when he was in the state legislature, pushed a bill that would allow police to spank graffiti vandals.
Among the GOP members are several hot-blooded conservatives from the 73-person class elected in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. These include Reps. Bob Barr (Ga.), who advocated impeachment hearings even before the Lewinsky scandal broke, and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), advocate of conservative causes from term limits to opposing gays in the military.
The cultural gap between the committee's Republicans and Democrats was evident in the Sept. 21 release of Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony in the Lewinsky case along with 2,800 pages of documents. The release of the sexually explicit material took place on Rosh Hashanah, a solemn Jewish holiday beginning 10 days of meditation and atonement.
"It was the talk in many synagogues," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), one of six Jewish Democrats on the committee. "It was unfortunate." Frank, who is also Jewish, called it "inconsiderate rather than insensitive."
Graham expressed regret if offense had been given. But several members said it was a sign that Republican conservatives listen to different voices than the committee's liberal Democrats.
While the Democrats hail mainly from urban areas with heavy Jewish, black and minority constituencies, a large bloc of committee Republicans represents southern or suburban districts in which white, evangelical voters are a powerful electoral force.
Two of the 21 committee Republicans, Graham and Bob Inglis, come from adjacent districts in western South Carolina, an area that mixes economic growth -- fueled by a burgeoning auto industry -- with the conservative Christian message emanating from Greenville's Bob Jones University.
Along with the cultural gulf, sources say, are cross-party resentments that are more personal than ideological. Veteran Republicans still harbor grievances at the autocratic treatment they received at the hands of the committee's former Democratic chairman, Jack Brooks (Tex.), defeated in the 1994 Republican landslide.
Frank bristles at the championing by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which stipulated that states were not required to recognize gay marriages. Democrats viewed the legislation, which had no actual impact since gay marriages are not legal anywhere in the United States, as a cynical pre-election sop to the Christian Right.
When news broke recently of Hyde's affair with a married woman more than 30 years ago, Frank was asked if it was relevant to his role as chairman of the committee during an impeachment process. "No," he snapped. "But it might have been relevant when he was supporting the Defense of Marriage Act."
The emergence of a consensus in a committee so at odds seems unlikely. All but two members, Bono and Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), are lawyers schooled in an adversarial approach to problems.
But committee Democrats and Republicans alike suggest that some accommodation is, indeed, a possibility.
Democrats last week pointed to the judicious comments of several committee Republicans as a possible harbinger of future cooperation on impeachment. They included, surprisingly, the young conservative firebrand Graham, as well as Rogan and a conservative from Clinton's home state of Arkansas, Rep. Asa Hutchinson.
Republican members suggested that their views, when analyzed closely, are far more differentiated, and less monolithic, than they first appear.
Chabot, for example, played a major role on the House floor in modifying restrictive immigration legislation backed by his Judiciary Committee colleague, Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex).
Republicans and Democrats on the committee are presently co-sponsoring legislation that would allow an anti-trust exemption for doctors who engage in collective bargaining with managed care organizations.
Democrat Wexler, for his part, said that he supports much of the crime legislation drafted by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), who chairs the crime subcommittee.
But in the process now beginning, the stakes are much higher. "I'm still not sure who [on the GOP side] I could go to," said one Democratic member.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company