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The man who would be speaker.


February 1981. Early drafts of President Reagan's first budget plan, which included deep cuts in many of the most worthwhile domestic programs, were making the rounds on Capitol Hill. School lunches, tuition aid for the poor, and Medicaid--programs that represent the core Democratic notion that government should lend a helping hand to those who need it--all were slated for huge reductions.

In the House of Representatives, suddenly the only body the Democrats controlled, a stunned Democratic leadership tried to formulate a strategy to protect the programs it most valued. Finally, they drew the first line of battle: Programs for the neediest? Programs that worked the best? Education programs? No--the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. A letter to the White House from House Majority Leader Jim Wright of Texas and 30 other Democrats begged the administration to spare Synfuels's $5 billion in federal subsidies and loan guarantees. The program, which paid corporations to produce fuel at $60 to $90 per barrel (the present cost of oil is $17 per barrel) through processes that actually consumed more energy than they produced, is today being phased out as one of the few programs that both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, could agree was a waste of money.

"Does that sound weird?' asks a former aide to a member of the House leadership. "Damn right it's weird. It's Jim Wright.'

The person who decided the Democrats should man the barricades for Synfuels will probably become Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1986, replacing the retiring Tip O'Neill. Perhaps that doesn't seem extraordinary. Wright has been in Congress for 32 years, majority leader for the past nine. His ascent to the speakership seems as inevitable as Prince Charles's to the throne. But before Democrats allow the majority leader to move into the speaker's chair, they should consider that this may be the most important leadership race in many years--so they might want to think seriously about how they choose their speaker.

Leading the monkeys

If you were to stop 100 Americans on the street and ask them who the leader of the loyal opposition was when Richard Nixon was president, they might answer Edmund Muskie, or J. William Fulbright, or maybe Dan Rather. Few would mention John McCormack or Carl Albert, the two speakers of the House during Nixon's administration. But if you asked them who leads the Democrats under Ronald Reagan, a vivid image would lumber into their minds: that spherical Irishman with the mop of white hair, Tip O'Neill.

It would be a vivid image not simply because this speaker has a distinctive form but because Americans have seen and read about O'Neill frequently. He denounced the president's budget cuts, warned about Social Security reductions, and fought against the big tax cut. He has been, in many people's minds, the Democratic party incarnate, an image that Republican strategists tried to exploit on all possible occasions. What better person to symbolize the party of taxers and spenders than an old-time pol who protests against budget and tax cuts?

O'Neill became speaker the same way most have, by being a loyal soldier, a good friend, helping colleagues when he could, placing his foot on the leadership ladder and slowly climbing up. Little thought was given to whether he would be a good symbol for the Democrats or even a good national Democratic leader. He was to be the man who tamed the monkeys, who made the hearings run on time, who tried to make that Rube Goldberg contraption called the House function as a legislative body.

But in 1980, the Democratic party lost control of the Senate and the White House, leaving the House of Representatives an island of Democratic control. The speaker was no longer the leader of an institution. He became the leader of the Democratic party. His statements were the Democrats' statements; his actions helped shape the Democrats' legislative agenda and television image.

Six years later the Democrats still control only the House. How the House tackles tax reform, trade, and Gramm-Rudman could change Americans' perceptions of the party. In a best-case scenario the Democrats might win back both the Senate in November and the White House in 1988. In that case, the speaker's legislative ability and priorities can help make or break a president. In the worst case scenario, the House will be the haven for the Democrats in Washington for the next two to six years. What happens in the House during this pivotal time, when allegiances are shifting and parties may be realigning, will be crucial in molding public opinion about the party and guiding its direction.

With each year of the Reagan presidency, more and more people have come to call themselves Republicans. In 1985, according to the Gallup poll, 33 percent considered themselves Republicans and 38 percent Democrats, compared to 24 percent who called themselves Republicans and 46 percent Democrats in 1980. The Democrats have won the presidency only once since 1964. Ultimately, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988 will have the greatest responsibility to set the tone for the party. But the speaker of the House will be more than a legislative tactician and taskmaster. He will help determine whether the Democrats are seen as the party that busts budgets or balances them equitably, merely raises taxes or makes them more just, favors guns over butter or preserves only the best of both.

Strictly speakering

The speaker does have the power to influence the legislation the House produces. "You can help set a tone, establish priorities, and can have access in a greater degree to what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit, where you can assert certain values,' Jim Wright says. Because he has to deal with 435 different power centers, the speaker's job is admittedly difficult. Unlike the strong speakers of the past, today's speaker cannot sit down with a half-dozen powerful committee chairman and decide what Congress is going to do. But in some ways the next speaker will have more power than the Nicholas Longworths or the Sam Rayburns; sometimes even they could be frustrated by uncooperative committee chairmen.

Ironically, it was the post-Watergate reform congressmen that brought statutory clout back to the speakership. The young reformers worked to reduce the power of the imperious committee chairmen and give newer members more say. Part of their strategy was to give the speaker more power. A strong speaker, they reasoned, would boost their own influence over the committee chairmen, since the speaker is chosen by all the Democratic House members, not just the veterans. Although the speaker must now contend with all members, he has been given more tools to do it. Committee assignment nominations, for example, are now made by the 31-member Steering and Policy Committee, on which the speaker controls ten votes and the gavel. Previously, committee assignments had been controlled by the independent Ways and Means Committee. The leadership-dominated Steering and Policy Committee also gets to choose the members of the Budget Committee, a centralized mechanism for controlling spending and taxing by the whole Congress. Following the defections of the Southern Democrats in 1981, O'Neill used this power to bump chief Boll Weevil Phil Gramm from the panel. Before 1975 the Budget Committee, let alone a budget process, did not even exist. Spending was determined largely by those all-powerful committee chairmen.

The speaker also appoints the Rules Committee, controls the schedule of bills that come up on the floor--a crucial power given the crowded legislative agenda--and can make use of the 63-person whip system to divine members' intentions. Finally, the speaker, in this age of mass communications, has great access to the media, and to whatever extent he can affect public opinion on an issue, he can influence members as well. In short, says former Rep. Richard Bolling, "Today's speaker is infinitely more powerful than anyone since Joe Cannon,' the tyrannical speaker of the early 1900s.

O'Neill, for example, used his influence to prevent the Democrats from supporting a tax increase, and it was O'Neill who decided the Democrats would use Social Security as an issue in 1982. Although his approach to government can be undiscriminating, one has a sense that O'Neill believes deeply in politics as a means of helping people who are getting swept under society's rug. Rep. Norman Mineta recalls that when he and three other congressmen were trying to put together a Democratic budget proposal in 1983, they suggested limiting cost of living adjustments for Social Security recipients. This would have frozen benefits for both the impoverished elderly who are barely surviving and the wealthy recipients who don't need increases. "This is absolutely not going to be on the table at all,' O'Neill told the group. "We are not going to digress from this point. This is a basic fundamental issue with Democrats, and we will try to embarrass anyone who takes a different position.' They didn't digress.

Glad hand and greenbacks

Given the importance of this speaker election, it might seem strange that it was completed, for all practical purposes, on December 6, 1976. On that day, in a dramatic upset vote, the House chose Jim Wright to be majority leader. The late-to-enter Texan came in third on the first ballot behind two liberals, Philip Burton and Richard Bolling. On the second ballot Wright beat Bolling by two votes. Most observers agreed that if Bolling had made the runoff he would have beaten Burton. But Wright earned a shot at the third ballot, and when the votes for the third ballot were revealed, Wright had won by one vote. Ironically, it may have been Dan Rostenkowski, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the most likely of the unlikely challengers to Wright's bid to become speaker, who boosted Wright into his slot. Rostenkowski, who was then one of Wright's floor managers, saw a member mark his ballot for Burton and asked, "Why did you do that?' The member responded, "Wright doesn't have a chance, but if you want me to vote for him, I will.'

Aside from the malleability of that one congressman, why was Jim Wright chosen to be speaker-in-waiting? For one, he was able to use his position as ranking member of the House Public Works Committee to help members with their dams, highways, and canals. He could work with large numbers of his colleagues and prove his loyalty and affability as a deputy whip and chairman of a congressional campaign committee. He spent a great deal of time courting freshman members, campaigning and raising funds for them. The handshake, the campaign appearance, the help with the project; they brought in the votes. Then-freshman Rep. Barbara Mikulski, for example, voted for Wright because the conservative Texan "was very helpful to me in breaking the ice with the Baltimore business community. They felt I was a left-wing bomb thrower because of my populist background. And I was there when Wright needed me.' Finally, as an easy-going, accommodating conservative in a race against two strong-willed, acerbic liberals, Wright was able to provide a distinct alternative.

Since that victory, Wright has used his position to win friends and influence people. He has moved to the left on a few key issues like the MX missile and aid to the contras, partially alleviating some liberals' concern that he is too conservative. He has forcefully presented the leadership's positions during the floor debate on the major budget and tax fights of the past five years. And he has even begun talking about the need for new ideas. "I think we need some creative and innovative solutions to tailor our solutions to the current problems,' he says. But most important have been the personal touches--like giving his colleagues money and campaign help, a skillful combination of the glad hand and the greenback. More than three-fourths of the current Democratic members of Congress have received contributions from Jim Wright's personal political action committee over the past six years. The PAC is planning to distribute $350,000 in 1986 alone. Of course, it's good for the party to have well-financed candidates. It's also good for Jim Wright. Just as important to the members, though, are Wright's tireless campaign efforts on their behalf. Wright has made literally hundreds of campaign appearances for members. For example, he wooed Rep. Edolphus Towns by rescheduling a trip to Central America so he could appear at a fundraiser for the Brooklyn liberal. "Most people are looking for a process-oriented person,' says Richard Peabody, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins who has studied several leadership races. "They want someone who is going to help them with their bills, help them campaign. And if you back it up with $1,000, that makes it more difficult to vote against him.' Within days of Tip O'Neill's retirement announcement, Wright said he had 183 pledges. Now he has support from more than 200 of the 255 House Democrats.

Bills of Wright's

What kind of speaker will he be?

Almost everyone agrees that the "process-oriented' skills that brought him to his present position practically guarantee he will be effective at making the legislative machinery run efficiently. The doubts about Wright are in the realms of image and ideas.

As for image, if Tip O'Neill seems like the sort of guy who would write out a taxpayer-endorsed check to everyone who tried to sell him swampland in Florida, Jim Wright seems more like the guy selling the land. Like a high school student just taught how to use similes and metaphors, Wright piles syllable upon syllable to impress the listener. "In finest theory, [a politician gathers] up gleams of enlightenment from a multitude of human sources, draws them all together through the prism of his own personality, and then transmits them, concentracted, in a broader, brighter beam of inspiration for the whole community,' the bushy-browed Texan said in one of his speeches. It is a style that has earned him a reputation as one of the best orators in Congress, but on TV it sometimes produces the same effect as professional wrestling: it's fun to watch but hardly believable.

Ideologically, Wright is more conservative than most members of his party. For example, in 1981--the year that separated the poll-watchers from the true-believing Democratic legislators-- there were 75 votes in which a clear alliance formed between Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. Wright supported the coalition on 63 percent of those votes. Certainly there is nothing wrong--indeed there is much good--in having a Democratic leader who can see the merit in the conservative side of the argument. But a number of Wright's colleagues feel that he has too often adopted conservative positions that had little or no discernible virtue. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1965. He was an all-out supporter of the war in Vietnam almost to the end. More recently, he favored giving Reagan's Office of Management and Budget formal veto power over regulations, even those for health and safety, and he opposed strengthening a law requiring corporations to notify communities that they are being exposed to toxic materials. And Wright's conservative district will always keep him looking over his right shoulder.

Wright is clearly not a conservative, however, in his spending policies. "He's a guns-and-butter man,' says Paul Burka, chief Wright-watcher for Texas Monthly. Name a leading boondoggle of recent years, and you can be confident Wright supported it whole-heartedly. From Synfuels to the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, from New York's Westway to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Wright has been a consistent champion of wasteful projects. In fact, when Ralph Nader's Congress Watch took a look at nine important "waste/subsidy' votes, it found that Jim Wright was one of only six members in the entire House to vote for the huge subsidies on every vote. This is not a promising record for a man who would lead a party that is trying to rid itself of its reputation for reckless spending.

Wright does concede that defense spending must be controlled, but the way he would go about it is not reassuring. He proposes stretching out the appropriations so that the impact on the deficit each year would be less and the Pentagon could "monitor procurement actively.' Ultimately the Pentagon would get everything it wants-- and, with moderate inflation, at a higher cost. Moreover, the underlying defects in the system, including irrational procurement and retirement policies, will go unchanged, guaranteeing that waste will continue.

Here, as with his support of the boondoggles, Wright is out of touch with the more thoughtful elements of his party. Their position on defense is responsibly critical, carefully distinguishing between what the country does and does not need.

Democrats must also exhibit the same sense of discrimination when it comes to entitlements and social programs. Even Tip O'Neill has seen the need to defend Social Security for the poor while taxing it when it goes to the wealthy. Again, the importance of such distinctions does not seem to have occurred to Jim Wright.

On the critical issue of tax reform, Wright has also diverged from the progressive elements of the party. He opposed the reform efforts last year to eliminate or tighten many special-interest loopholes, including those of Texas oil and gas producers he has fought for throughout his career. Wright focused instead on revenue levels and tax rates, ignoring the fact that the very existence of most loopholes allows a steady drain of money from less wealthy taxpayers. The idea of tax reform, particularly of the Bradley-Gephardt bill that triggered the tax reform debate, is that everyone should forfeit his own selfish interest in order to bring about a greater good for the national community--a simple and fair tax code. His down-the-line support for oil and gas producers, although expected of a Texas congressman, has prevented him from voting the national interest on other occasions too. He supported, for example, using a regressive value added tax to finance Superfund instead of a targeted tax on the oil and chemical companies that put the toxic waste in people's backyards. Since the challenges facing the country in the coming years will require bold approaches and some sacrifice, Wright's opposition to tax reform and his persistent advocacy of gas and oil interests are also troubling signs that he won't be the kind of leader the party needs.

A freshman speaker

Speakership races have not always had foreordained outcomes. When William Pennington came to the House of Representatives in 1859 for his first term as a congressman from New Jersey he was virtually unknown both nationally and within the chamber. He possessed a certain dignity of manner but had no opinions of note or familiarity with the workings of the House. So his colleagues elected him speaker. Those were volatile times leading up to the Civil War and the members wanted above all someone who had done so little that he could not offend anyone.

Although the case of Pennington is particularly unusual, capturing the top spot was not a matter of simply getting one's foot on the leadership ladder, as Jim Wright has done. The speakership used to be a highly contested spot; positions on issues and within factions were more important than presence in a leadership structure. Before the twentieth century, the speakers served in the House an average of only seven years prior to taking the gavel, and the office held considerable power, most notably the right to make all committee appointments. So members realized their votes for speaker could significantly affect the balance of power within the chamber and ultimately the disposition of major issues like slavery. The decision on speaker was often bitterly contested, with elections requiring dozens, sometimes hundreds of ballots.

As the seniority system became entrenched early in the early 1900s, the only way to wriggle into a committee chairmanship and a House leadership position was to wait around and make friends. Nevertheless, there have been the gutsy ones who have tried to buck the system. Mo Udall challenged a sitting speaker, John McCormick, in 1968. He lost 178 to 58, but earned the respect of many of his colleagues. Wright himself defeated the sitting Majority Whip, John J. McFall, for majority leader. On the Republican side, Gerald Ford successfully dethroned Minority Leader Charles Halleck in 1965. In the Senate majority leader races in 1984, Republicans turned down Alaskan Ted Stevens, even though as majority whip he was nominally in line, because they thought Robert Dole would provide stronger, more independent leadership. So there is precedent to take on the powers and win. Now that the seniority system is withering, the speakership ought to be a contested position again. "I don't think there's any question Jim Wright can be defeated,' says Bolling, who himself ran for the majority leader spot twice unsuccessfully. "The problem is putting together the coalition.' And finding the person to put together the coalition.

Despite the warning signs in Wright's past, the only member making serious candidate noises is Dan Rostenkowski, the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Rostenkowski picked up ground by shepherding the tax reform bill through the House in 1985 and could earn more points if he can pass a trade bill. But Rostenkowski looks progressive now only because his own political interests happened to coincide with the interests of the party in 1985. In 1981, on the other hand, in order to woo conservative Democratic votes, Rostenkowski tried to outbid President Reagan by shamelessly giving away tax breaks to big business. It was, Rep. Barney Frank declared, "The Vince Lombardi school of politics, where winning becomes the only thing.' Rostenkowski, in the words of one liberal lobbyist, is as much of an "old-style hack as Wright.'

The busy, lazy, cozy and timid

But what about all those exciting young members who are supposed to lead the party into the future? Almost three quarters of House Democrats were elected since 1974. Couldn't they mount a challenge behind a bright, reformist politician who would better be able to present a coherent, modern vision of the Democratic party? This may be the only speaker's race for a decade or more. Isn't this the time for them to strike?

Well, it turns out that so far the rising stars of the Democratic House are too busy, lazy, cozy, or timid to run. About 30 of the newer members met in December of 1984 to discuss the faults of the party and its leadership. When word reached O'Neill and Wright, the ringleaders received verbal lashings--and a pacifier. The leadership agreed to make the Majority Whip post elective for the first time. So some of the young insurgents are gleefully running for a leadership post in which they don't actually have to challenge someone with power.

Those members who quietly wish Wright wouldn't be speaker bemoan the fact that there is no exciting alternative. They note that Al Gore went to the Senate and Tim Wirth is trying to follow him.

But that isn't the real reason other members are avoiding a challenge to Wright. If a group of Democrats, itching for a leadership change, decided they wanted to take on Wright, there are plenty of talented, politically astute, creative congressmen who could make good speakers. Members from across the political spectrum sing the praises of legislators like Richard Gephardt, Barney Frank, David Obey, and Bill Gray. The problem is that most congressmen are using the same criteria for choosing speaker they always have: he helped with a project, he campaigned for me, I like him personally, he's been around, and he's worked hard at his current job. But while those are good qualities for earning the Mr. Congeniality award, they are not the only ones the Democrats need in a speaker in the coming decade.

Moreover, dozens of congressmen simply have grown too comfortable where they are. Ironically, as a result of earlier victories that gave subcommittee chairmen more power, the young insurgents of 1974 are now the powerful subcommittee chairman of 1986. They have little reason to run for speaker, or for that matter even to have a strong speaker. They fought against the development of committee fiefdoms, but now that they are barons themselves the system doesn't seem so intolerable. They are resigned to Wright's winning and feel they have too much to lose by challenging him. As chairman of a major subcommittee or committee they can actually influence the course of legislation; as a failed candidate for speaker they may not be able to. "The power has sapped them of their revolutionary spirit,' says Al From, executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council, which was set up to help the Democrats "rethink' their approaches. "The longer they're here the less likely they'll upset the apple cart.'

The odds of defeating Wright appear insurmountable. But they have a lot to gain by trying, and more to lose than they think by passing up the opportunity. House Democrats feel somewhat insulated from national political trends because they have been able to use the power of incumbency to protect their jobs. But if more and more voters continue to consider themselves Republicans, that security won't last.

Above all, if forward-thinking Democrats really believe their own rhetoric about changing the way the party operates, they have an obligation to do something about it. Will they seize the opportunity? Or will 1986 be known as the year the Democratic party had a chance to revise its old style of leadership but decided by default not to? As one staff aide noted, the effects of a genuine leadership change would be dramatic. "It would send shock waves through the place. The country would look around and say, "What happened?'' It would see a party that not only talks about new directions and new leadership, but actually does something about it.
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Title Annotation:Jim Wright
Author:Waldman, Steven
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1986
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