Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified a PBS reporter. She is Linda Scott, not Lynn Scott.

Opinion writer

Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, sat down for his weekly roundtable with reporters Tuesday morning but noticed that the reporters’ microphones left him no room to put down his papers.

“Your words are so important that they want to make sure they don’t miss anything,” Fox News’s Chad Pergram joked as Hoyer gently pushed some of the microphones back.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Hoyer laughed. “Who’s writing that down?” he asked, holding up an imaginary pen and pad. “Thank you, Chad,” he said to the originator of the compliment.

Hoyer will take flattery wherever he can get it these days. A year ago, he was one of the most powerful people in Washington, the majority leader of the House and the man who set the policy agenda in the Capitol. Now he’s the minority whip, leading House Democrats in the role of bystanders as others turn the wheels of government.

On Tuesday, Hoyer found himself in the rather undignified position of speculating with reporters about whether the budget “supercommittee,” over which he has no control, will reach a deal this fall.

“I’m hopeful that the committee will get there,” Hoyer said.

“Why are you confident?” asked PBS’s Linda Scott.

“Did I say I was confident?”

“You said you were hopeful.”

“Hopeful is not confident,” Hoyer explained. “People ask me, ‘Are you optimistic?’ I say, ‘Look, I’m not optimistic. I’m hopeful.’”

“So you are not expressing confidence?” Scott pressed.

“Time is short — that doesn’t give you a lot of confidence,” Hoyer reasoned. “But the reports that I’ve received . . . [are] that there is an honest working effort that makes one hopeful.”

Fox’s Pergram rejoined the conversation. “Does your lack of confidence in the supercommittee stem from — ”

“Now, let’s hold it,” Hoyer said, cutting him off.

“You said you weren’t confident,” Pergram pointed out.

“I didn’t say I had a lack of confidence,” Hoyer argued. “That’s your word. I was asked, was I confident. I said I was hopeful. You are now taking that one step further, that I have a lack of confidence. The absence of confidence is not necessarily the lack of confidence. I don’t want to parse all these words with you but I’m hopeful.”

Pergram proceeded to tease the leader about the reason for “your lack of whatever this is, the absence of whatever this is.”

The diminished stature of a once-mighty figure isn’t a reflection on Hoyer personally. Sitting in his Capitol conference room, beneath frescoes of Washington and Jefferson surrounded by cherubs, the whip still cuts a dignified figure, with his crisp white shirt, silver hair and blue eyes behind his reading glasses.

But there is no dignity in being a House Democrat these days. To the extent that anything happens in this town — which is not often — it is worked out between President Obama, Senate Democrats and House Republicans, with an occasional cameo for Senate Republicans, who have the ability to block the majority. But House Democrats often find out what’s going on by watching cable news.

Hoyer freely admitted that he’s in the dark about what the budget supercommittee is doing. “The 12 are being very circumspect with their colleagues as well as with the press,” he said. “I don’t know the specifics. . . . I thought, frankly, you knew.”

And Hoyer’s the boss. Imagine how Rep. John Larson, the Democratic caucus chairman, felt as he showed up for a morning news conference Tuesday and found only seven reporters, compared to the 25 who were at a concurrent Republican event.

“Morning!” the Connecticut congressman called out.

Murmurs from the reporters.

“Good morning!” Larson, dissatisfied with the response, shouted.

Louder murmurs.

“There we go!” he said.

His colleague, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Tex.), came to the microphone to explain the predicament. “We’re not in charge in the House,” he said. “I have to be realistic. Our bill is not going to see the light of day.”

A third Democrat, newly elected Rep. Kathy Hochul (N.Y.), proposed an antidote to powerlessness. “I’m going to start a caucus called the Why Can’t We All Just Get Along Caucus,” she said. “If I’m one person alone, I’ll sit there and have a beer by myself.”

An hour later, it was Hoyer’s turn to rage against irrelevancy. He offered a long list of Democratic priorities, followed by the disclaimer: “In the Republican-controlled House. . . we’ve been unable to move any of those proposals.”

In lieu of power, he exercised complaints. About the House majority: “We’ve had no real jobs legislation.” About the other chamber: “The Senate right now is dysfunctional.” And about the system:“The Congress isn’t working.”

Nobody knows that better than the irrelevant House Democrats.

danamilbank@washpost.com