The mark-up had been scheduled to start at 2 that afternoon, and now it was n w0106 ----- r a BC-05/22/83-COMITE 4takes 05-22 0001 THE COMMITTEE Leaders Tailor Panels For Productivity By David Maraniss Washington Post Staff Writer
The mark-up had been scheduled to start at 2 that afternoon, and now it was nearly 3:30 and nothing was happening. Three younger congressmen, feet up on their desks, were killing time by telling dirty jokes. An aide sat in the back row editing a report with her red pen. And Richard L. Ottinger, chairman of the energy conservation and power subcommittee, chain-smoked as he anxiously waited for a quorum.
All Ottinger needed was one more Democrat to stroll into the hearing room on the second floor of the Rayburn House Office Building and he would have the votes to report out a low-income energy assistance bill. Finally that Democrat appeared in the person of Al Swift of Washington, and when Ottinger spotted him he jumped from his seat and clapped and shouted "Hooray!"
His reaction was not quite in character for a senior member of Congress, but it was somehow appropriate to this occasion.
Ottinger's subcommittee had been able to move only four pieces of legislation in 1981 and 1982. The low-income energy assistance bill would now be the second to pop out of that same panel in just the first three months of this session.
It was a breakneck pace by comparison, and for the Democratic leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, of which Ottinger's subcommittee is a part, it was a sign that some of them, at least, had reclaimed control of their own turf. Back-room maneuvers and power plays they had orchestrated in December and January--recruiting sympathetic freshmen, changing the party ratios and cutting back the sizes of their subcommittees--were paying off.
This committee, so proud of its broad jurisdiction, productivity and aggressiveness, had issued very little in the way of major legislation during the 97th Congress, its first session under Chairman John D. Dingell of Michigan. It sat for 998 hours on 310 days, considered 876 bills and published 52,548 pages of material. Yet it reported out only 55 bills and failed to act on the two major pieces of legislation that consumed much of its time and energy: amendments to the Clean Air Act and major reform of the telecommunications industry.
"If you wanted to look at our committee as a microcosm of Congress, there was something to it," said Democrat W.J. (Billy) Tauzin of Louisiana. "The debates were fast and furious, the issues were hot and contentious, the coalitions were forming and dissolving with lightning speed. Everything was high-powered and fast-paced, and in the end there was not a lot of product. I'm sometimes amazed at how fast things seemed to be happening for so little really happening."
There were two explanations for the dearth of legislative accomplishments by the committee last session.
One was that so much of the time of Energy and Commerce, and of every committee in Congress, was devoted to the fight over the budget.
"If you had told me at the beginning of the last session that John Dingell wouldn't get out as many bills as his low-key predecessor Harley Staggers did, I would have been astounded. But Reagan put all the issues in the Budget Act and used that as a vehicle for everything he wanted," said Swift. "Virtually everything stopped as we fought those battles. There wasn't much room for authorizing legislation to come down the pipe."
The other, perhaps more important, reason was that the full committee and its subcommittees were deadlocked ideologically. Almost every vote on almost every key issue was remarkably tight.
"We split so many ways that it made a mess of everything," said Mike Synar of Oklahoma. "We spent most of our time trying to figure out who we were and where we were supposed to sit."
Those conditions do not obtain this year. The budget became less of an all-consuming issue in the House, largely because of the infusion of 26 more Democrats in the off-year elections. Phil Gramm of Texas, leader of the "Boll Weevil" Democrats, conservative southerners who successfully crafted a coalition with the committee Republicans on several issues last session, switched parties and left the committee. The party ratio on the Energy Committee also changed considerably, from 24 Democrats and 18 Republicans last session to 27 Democrats and 15 Republicans. And the leaders of Energy and Commerce did everything else they possibly could to reassert control.
"We had to make goddamn sure that we could move this year," said Ottinger, whose subcommittee was the least productive during the 97th Congress. "I couldn't do much of anything except oversight last time, and it was frustrating. I just didn't have the votes. If I had tried to push more bills, Moorhead Carlos J. Moorhead of California, the ranking Republican on his subcommittee would have come in and undone everything, and we'd have gotten clobbered."
The senior Democrats on Energy and Commerce made their first moves early in January, when the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, made up of the House leadership and representatives from all regions of the country, met around a large horseshoe-shaped table in the old Congressional Hotel on Capitol Hill to make committee assignments for freshmen and other members who wanted to switch panels. More than 40 Democrats vied for seven available seats on Energy and Commerce, and the lobbying was fierce, as it always is.
Some candidates were clearly identified with special-interest groups such as the oil and gas and auto industries, seeking changes in the regulation of natural gas prices and the Clean Air Act. Others were pushed by opponents of the legislation those groups sought.
While members of the Steering and Policy Committee used natural gas and clean air as litmus tests in the selection process, they were as divided on the issues as the supplicants bidding for seats. In the end they said a "pox on both your houses," as one put it, and picked seven mainstream Democrats who for the most part were not attached to the special interests: Wayne Dowdy of Mississippi, William B. Richardson of New Mexico, Dennis E. Eckart of Ohio, John W. Bryant of Texas, Gerry E. Sikorski of Minnesota, James C. Slattery of Kansas, and Jim Bates of California.
One of those rejected was Harley O. Staggers Jr. of West Virginia, the son of the former chairman.
"We really worked it to get seven strong ones this time," said Timothy E. Wirth of Colorado, the only Energy and Commerce leader on the Steering and Policy panel. "The fact that Little Harley and some others tried and didn't get on is evidence of how tough it was. We wanted public-interest Democrats who would vote with us to redirect the economic priorities of this country."
As hard as Wirth and other Energy and Commerce leaders lobbied during the selection process, they could take only partial responsibility for the results. The seven Democrats chosen deserved most of the credit. Consider the effort that Sikorski, a former Minnesota state legislator, put into it.
"As soon as my election was over, my campaign to get on Energy and Commerce began," Sikorski recalled. "I sat down with the House Democrats from Minnesota and my administrative assistant and we plotted out how I could get on. The next week I flew out here and went to work on Steering and Policy members. It took a day or so to find out who the players were and what their schedules were so I could get in to see every one of them."
His breakthrough came when he went to see Charles Wilson of Texas.
"Well, son, whaddaya want?" Wilson asked.
"Energy and Commerce," said Sikorsi.
"Well, you know I'm from Texas and I like oil and gas," Wilson drawled. "Now why in the hell should I help you when you're from Minnesota and you don't like oil and gas? You'll be voting against me every chance you get."
Sikorski did not flinch. His defense was well-rehearsed. He told Wilson that he had been on the Minnesota legislature's commerce committee for six years, that he couldn't count the number of meetings and task forces he had taken part in, that he knew the Medicaid and Medicare issues better than any legislator in Minnesota.
"Son," said Wilson, "your time wasn't wasted. I won't be the last vote that does you in."
Sikorski did not leave it at that. He solicited the help of former vice president Walter F. Mondale and other influential Minnesota Democrats to call Wilson on his behalf. It worked. A week later, Wilson sent Sikorski a letter saying he would vote for him in the Steering and Policy Committee. "I hope," Wilson added, "that my early support will make you rational on oil and gas issues."
Equal in significance to the addition of the seven freshmen Democrats was the subtraction of a veteran, Phil Gramm, who switched parties after determining that either Steering and Policy or the full Democratic caucus was prepared to bounce him off Energy and Commerce. It was Gramm, often bringing three or four Democrats with him, who made it possible for the Republicans to hold their own on the committee last session.
"The Boll Weevils had a real intellectual and spiritual leader in Phil Gramm," acknowledged Republican Don Ritter of Pennsylvania. "He shared our philosophy, and his ability to articulate it was unsurpassed. We miss him dearly."
The second action taken by Energy and Commerce leaders to reassert their control came one morning late in January, a few days before the committee's first organizational session. The discussion that morning in the committee lounge never touched on natural gas decontrol, reauthorization of the Clean Air Act, broadcast deregulation, reform of the Environmental Protection Agency or any of the other issues within the committee's generous reach. But then again, it had very much to do with all of them.
In Congress, everything starts with numbers, and numbers were what Dingell and his subcommittee chairmen were dealing with: deciding how many members they would apportion to each of the panels they chaired. Dingell had a firm message for the others. He argued that the subcommittees should be expanded so that all 15 Republicans would have a chance to serve on at least two of them and the other Democrats would get on three.
"It is a matter of basic fairness," he said. "And if you don't do it, you'll live to regret it."
But as Dingell went around the room, asking his colleagues one by one what numbers they would set, he quickly discovered that his advice would be ignored.
Wirth's subcommittee had 17 members last session. This time he would go with 16, even though his panel was one of the most coveted in Congress. His reasons did not have to be explained to others in the room. Wirth, 43, is constantly crafting new and better legislative plans, but last session his efforts were thwarted by one particularly troublesome Republican, Tom Corcoran of Illinois.
Tutored by the lawyers of AT&T, Corcoran put on a remarkable display of parliamentary maneuvering that forced a bitterly frustrated Wirth to withdraw the centerpiece of his subcommittee's efforts: a massive revision of the telecommunications act. Now Wirth wanted to make sure Corcoran was not on his subcommittee, and this was the way he would do it.
Henry A. Waxman, 43, the progressive coalition-builder from California, chairman of health and environment, had 20 members last session. Now he would take 19. His motives also were clear. Waxman had gained a reputation as the preeminent health care legislator in the House. He was the "Little Big Man," as one California magazine once put it, who used his considerable skills and funds from his own political action committee, which he distributed to dozens of colleagues, to exert more influence over more members of Congress than most committee chairmen.
Waxman also had turned vote-counting into a precise art, anticipating who would vote how on issues large and small. "When you're dealing with 42 people in a shifting situation, that is one of the hardest things in the world to do," said Democrat Doug Walgren of Pennsylvania. "The dynamics of the moment are so confusing that most of us congressmen can't count under pressure. Henry can do it better than anyone."
Yet in the four years Waxman had been counting votes in his own subcommittee, the totals usually had been coming out against him, especially in his efforts to strengthen the Clean Air Act. This year, finally, he saw a chance for control, and 19 was the number he thought he would need to seize it.
James J. Florio of New Jersey, 45, the chairman of commerce, transportation and tourism, and Ottinger, 54, chairman of energy conservation and power, had somewhat less at stake. But both of them had trouble last session getting quorums for votes on issues of importance to them, and they figured that smaller subcommittees would only help them. So Ottinger cut back to 13 members, and Florio kept his at 10.
Philip R. Sharp, 40, the professorial moderate from eastern Indiana, chairman of fossil and synthetic fuels, was going to get the worst of it no matter what happened. His subcommittee would deal with natural gas legislation, and obviously would be the first choice of members from both parties who represented the oil and gas interests. The smaller his subcommittee, the more likely he would be to find himself surrounded by advocates of industry decontrol, a concept he was not eager to embrace.
It seemed, however, that the only way he could get a reasonable balance on his panel would be to open it up to every member of the committee. And if all of his subcommittee colleagues wanted to cut back, he would go along with them. So fossil fuels, which had 24 members last session, would now go with 19.
After seeing which way the wind was blowing, Dingell went along with the others. Saying he had to be certain that his oversight subcommittee would have the votes to issue subpoenas in the EPA investigation, he decided to reduce that panel from 17 members to 10.
When the Energy and Commerce leaders went public with their new numbers a few days later, rank-and-file Democrats grumbled and the 15 Republicans screamed.
James T. Broyhill of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the committee and a man accustomed to working out issues in bipartisan fashion, said the days of accommodation were over. Dingell, he said, should not look to the Republicans this year if he attempted to build a coalition on the clean air amendments. Republican William E. Dannemeyer of California made it a point not to let the Democrats forget that the minority felt it had been shorted one or two positions on every subcommittee. After every vote, he would ask the chairman to call the roll of "our Republican ghosts."
Some Democrats accused Wirth and Waxman, in particular, of shutting them out. "I think Tim stretched it," another subcommittee chairman said. "He got a little greedy. He went for a landslide."
"You've got to remember that the last session was bad for us," explained Wirth. "Gramm was smart enough to see how to form a coalition with the Republicans so we couldn't control things. We got organized this time, and right down the row we're not going to be pushed around."
Whether that is in fact how it turns out in the 98th Congress will be one of many subjects of this occasional series on the inner workings of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.