Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee pulled off what they acknowledged was an old-time power play yesterday, voting to stack each of the panel's six subcommittees with more than a 2-to-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans, far greater than the ratios in the full committee or the House.
The 15 Republicans on the powerful committee raged in protest, arguing that the new ratios made a mockery of the principle of one man, one vote. But there was nothing they could do to stop the maneuver, which the Democrats defended as an attempt to maintain what they called "a working majority."
The subcommittee-stacking in Energy and Commerce is expected to be repeated today by Democrats on the Foreign Affairs Committee and has already been accomplished to a somewhat lesser extent on several other committees. It is one in a series of efforts by the Democratic leadership, infused with 26 new members this session, to tighten its grip on the workings of the House.
Last month the Democrats approved several rules changes that, the Republicans claimed, would make it more difficult for the minority party to bring up legislation, and they also voted to remove one wayward member, conservative "Boll Weevil" Phil Gramm (Tex.), from the powerful Budget Committee.
Gramm, who has since switched parties, was also a member of Energy and Commerce last session, and his ability to frustrate the committee leadership by forging a Boll Weevil coalition with the Republicans was cited as the major reason that the subcommittee ratios were tilted more in the Democrats' favor this time around.
"We have simply done what is necessary to insure that we have a reasonable chance of passing programs of importance to us," said Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D-N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee on energy conservation and power.
"The reality is that some members of the majority have voted with some regularity with members of the minority," Ottinger said. "We're not trying to take undue advantage of the Republicans. We're trying to insure a working majority."
Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Calif.) compared the subcommittee assignments crafted by Energy and Commerce's 27 Democrats to the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919, when the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series.
Paraphrasing the words of a young baseball fan to Shoeless Joe Jackson, the star leftfielder of that team, Dannemeyer turned to committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and pleaded: "Say it ain't so, John."
Dingell said nothing in return, leaving it to colleague Ralph M. Hall (D-Tex.) to answer one sporting metaphor with another.
Said Hall: "As Dizzy Dean once said, 'It ain't braggin' if you can do it.' "
Democrats comprise 61.8 percent of the 435-member House, Republicans 38.2 percent. The subcommittee assignments in Energy and Commerce break down to 68.9 percent for the Democrats and 31.1 percent for the Republicans.
"We lost the election in November, but we didn't lose it that bad," said Rep. James T. Broyhill (N.C.), the ranking Republican on the committee. "The ratios they set correspond to what it would be if we lost 56 seats in the House, not 26. They just stacked the deck against us."
Most of the committee's Democrats, who worked out the subcommittee ratios during a private caucus last week, stayed quiet while the Republicans railed against them yesterday.
Some of the Democrats said privately that they were uncomfortable with what they had done, but felt it was necessary. At one point Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Calif.) asked chairman Dingell whether the principles of fair play applied to his committee.
"The chair does not quarrel with the ratios," said Dingell.
"That doesn't answer the question," responded Moorhead.
"The gentleman is correct," concluded Dingell.