Cleaning House

If Democrats win back the House of Representatives, their slim majority won't adequately reflect the magnitude of the change. The list of ranking Democrats in line to chair key committees reads like a who's who of progressive congressional leadership: Henry Waxman (Government Reform), George Miller (Education and the Workforce), John Conyers (Judiciary), and Charles Rangel (Ways and Means) are all up for committee chairmanships, while others--such as Barney Frank (Domestic and International Monetary Policy), Sander Levin (Trade), and Sherrod Brown (Health and Environment)--are poised to assume important subcommittee chairmanships. These legislators and others have already met with Democratic Minority Leader Richard Gephardt to begin forming an activist agenda that promises to contrast starkly with the past six years of Republican control.

As Democratic strategists point out, a surprisingly progressive agenda is driving the presidential election. Education, prescription drugs, health care, and Social Security are the most prominent examples. These issues, in turn, are framing House races and giving an advantage to progressive ideals if not always to Democratic candidates. "Unlike what we saw in the mid-1990s, this is not the kind of onslaught where conservatives are pushing back reforms," one Democratic tactician says. "Instead, these are the policy objectives that all members are talking about. As a result, we are making conservatives come to us."

If Democrats were to take back the House, they would quickly try to capitalize on the progressive momentum, first by expediting legislation to address issues like campaign finance reform that also appeal to moderate Republicans. Then they would use committee hearings and congressional investigations to build public support and legislative momentum on such issues as children's health care and prescription drug reform. During the recent period of Republican control, Democrats were able to leverage popular support into legislative success on only a handful of issues, such as a minimum wage hike and parental-leave legislation. In the majority, they would have far more power to frame agendas.

Recent events have helped set the stage. Several presumptive Democratic chairmen are banking on the fact that, in the wake of recent congressional hearings on defective Firestone tires and skyrocketing gasoline prices, the public will respond favorably to more consumer protection hearings. Such hearings have been the exception under Republican leadership, which has used its oversight powers mainly to harass the executive branch and seldom to investigate corporate abuses--except when compelled by scandals like the Firestone recall.

The Issues

If Democrats take control, campaign finance reform will likely be the first issue addressed by the new House. As public policy, it scores a rare trifecta: It has the advantages of broad public support, bipartisan appeal, and potential to energize subsequent reform efforts by conferring a measure of credibility on the new leadership. Campaign finance reform would be followed by a short list of traditional Democratic issues driven by key progressive committee chairmen:

Labor. Issues important to the labor movement would see immediate and dramatic change under Democratic leadership. "If you look at employment issues like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and union organizing, the Republicans on the Education and Workforce Committee have spent their investigative money attacking unions," says Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and former deputy general counsel of the House. Republicans in the House have maintained a steady offensive also by holding hearings with a transparently anti-union agenda on subjects such as how union organizing allegedly hurts companies. "Having the Republicans in the majority has meant repeatedly focusing in on things like [union] campaign finance violations that come at the expense of everything else," says Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America's Future. "That has largely hampered the labor movement, which can never be certain when these questions might be reopened [by Republican congressmen], even though the courts have dealt with them."

Under Democratic leadership, labor's legislative goals would get top billing. One priority is international trade, which Democratic leaders would like to reshape to include labor and environmental issues. Over the past six years, congressional Republicans have successfully framed the issue as a choice between unrestricted trade and no trade at all, splitting Democratic moderates and progressives in the process. But "if the Democrats take over, it will not be a choice between no trade and trade without regard for workers and the environment," says Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts. "We will have a policy that promotes economic integration and the movement of capital to places where it can do some good, but with requirements that the environment and the rights of workers be protected."

Early passage of such legislation would be difficult with the slim majority that Democrats will be lucky to attain. But Frank is one of those legislators who fervently believes that congressional oversight hearings can be used to influence public perception. If the Democrats win, Frank will become chairman of the subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the Federal Reserve and international financial institutions. "I intend to make that committee an ongoing seminar on how to combine growth with equity," he says.

A striker-replacement ban, proposed by the Clinton administration but killed by congressional Republicans, would certainly be revisited. Occupational safety would be reintroduced as a legitimate subject of inquiry. "Companies have forgotten in the last half-dozen years what it means to have their practices exposed to the light of day," says Tiefer. Finally, Democratic leadership would mean a minimum wage bill (one that wasn't bought with outrageous tax breaks) could be passed.

Health Care. The Democratic health care agenda would focus mainly on three areas: helping the uninsured, enacting HMO reform, and securing a prescription drug benefit for seniors, most likely under Medicare. One of the most important legislators in this area is Representative Henry Waxman of California, who stands to chair the Committee on Government Reform. In the 1980s, Waxman earned a reputation as a tough, progressive chairman for his investigative hearings into tobacco company abuses. "I still feel that Congress has never lived up to its responsibility in the tobacco area," says Waxman. "Until we pass legislation to make sure the tobacco industry has a financial reason not to have kids smoke, we won't really see anything change."

Along with Representative Pete Stark of California, Waxman has led congressional investigations on issues ranging from gaps in health insurance coverage to pharmaceutical industry abuses. During the six-year Republican majority, Waxman used his minority staff to launch one of the earliest examinations of prescription drug prices, even as Republican Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, the committee chairman, was busy pushing impeachment.

Waxman's reports have addressed such issues as discriminatory pricing, how U.S. seniors pay more for drugs than their counterparts abroad, and how equivalent prescription drugs can cost significantly less for animals than for humans. Even in the minority, Waxman was able to use his committee to frame a number of important issues that at the time did not receive national attention but are now generating widespread recognition in the presidential race. "If Democrats regain the majority and can call hearings, I will draw attention to these problems and other health care issues that need to be addressed," says Waxman. His agenda will likely include an investigation into pharmaceutical company pricing policies, which Waxman contends shift costs disproportionately onto seniors. One issue he has already worked on with Democratic Representative Tom Allen of Maine, and may pursue as chairman, is a bill that would require drug companies--which regularly offer discounted prices to favored clients--to give their lowest price to seniors as well.

Education. A good example of the power of committee chairmen to frame issues is the work of the Education and Workforce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, chaired by Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan. Hoekstra has called more than two dozen oversight hearings during the 106th Congress. A recent hearing addressed "Waste, Fraud and Program Implementation at the U.S. Department of Education." The primary witness, no stranger to Hoekstra's investigations, was Education Secretary Richard Riley. Hoekstra, so that he might disable and distract the Education Department, has abandoned a bipartisan pledge to concentrate on educational reform rather than oversight and spending issues. His consistent antagonism has angered Democrats on the subcommittee, who accuse him of sabotaging the subcommittee's efforts to improve academic achievement for children. "Hearing after hearing has been a one-sided, divisive attempt to smear the Education Department," says Representative Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat and ranking member on the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

One way these investigations serve Republican interests is by tying up agencies that would otherwise be functioning normally. Hoekstra is particularly adept at the practice of overwhelming agency staff. In the past few years, he has sent the department dozens of letters with requests for the identification of all grants or payments to labor unions, all union documents concerning a purported agency "hit list," and the résumés of all political appointees and employees in the secretary's office. Despite Hoekstra's efforts to thwart it, the department has managed to lower the default rate on student loans from 22 percent to less than 7 percent.

The Democrats' agenda under the veteran leadership of George Miller of California would be in marked contrast to Hoekstra's. Hearings would focus on such problems as overcrowded classes or low teachers' salaries and would use witnesses to dramatize problems that the public has already indicated it wishes the government to address. A Democratic committee would also be expected to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to revive a stalled teacher-recruitment bill, and to launch new efforts to equalize funding between rich and poor school districts. "Our deadlock on school construction," predicts Representative Sandy Levin, "would end, and end quickly."

Environment. A Democratic House would mean a shift away from the pro-business climate in the Resources Committee and an end to the Republican efforts to hamstring regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Representative David McIntosh, an Indiana Republican who chairs a key subcommittee, has targeted the EPA much the way Hoekstra has targeted the Education Department, with time-consuming partisan investigations. Archconservative Representative Helen Chenoweth, an Idaho Republican, has used her investigative powers as chair of the subcommittee on forests to hold hearings on the privatization of forest management. Should the Democrats win, her chairmanship would likely go to Representative Adam Smith, a moderate Democrat from Washington, who could use his position to end the current silence on issues like the destruction of old-growth forests through logging and road building.

In addition, a progressive Resources Committee chairman (many speculate it would be Massachusetts Representative Edward Markey) could play an important defensive role in protecting the environment should two crucial Supreme Court decisions currently on the docket be decided unfavorably. First, the Court has agreed to decide whether small, intrastate wetlands can be converted for use as landfills; it may very well find that Congress exceeded its Commerce Clause powers by allowing wetlands regulation. The Court will also consider a challenge to the authority of the EPA to set national standards for air pollutants. If the decision were to narrow existing wetlands protection, a Democratic House could be expected, as it did in the 1980s, to respond by holding investigations and hearings to demonstrate how commercial development indeed threatens wetlands, then follow up with alternate legislation that would withstand judicial scrutiny.

Justice. Other issues likely to see increased committee attention are racial profiling and law enforcement. As the probable chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Representative John Conyers of Michigan would have more power to move his Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act, which has stalled under Republican leadership. The bill would allow community participation in police brutality investigations, give the Justice Department greater police department oversight, and establish accountability review boards to remove bad officers. Conyers would take a step toward ending racial profiling with a bill that would direct the attorney general to study racial patterns in routine traffic stops. He would also seek to mitigate the 1996 Immigration Act by scrapping retroactive punishments for minor offenses, granting visas to families of permanent legal residents, and creating parity for all Central American immigrants. Bills that have died in committee under Republicans--a hate crimes bill and a gay rights bill, for example--would at least make it to the floor under Democrats. Other potential bills address Internet privacy rights, the strict immigration laws passed in 1996, and the effects of the drug war.

Should Al Gore win the presidency, partisan loyalty will compel many House Democrats to adopt a more moderate, less critical tone than they might prefer, since Democratic initiatives would be more likely to become law. Democratic leaders would be much more aggressive with a Republican in the White House.

But even a narrow Democratic victory would split House Republicans. "The Republican leadership is going to go into a much more hard-line mode if we win narrowly," predicts one likely subcommittee chairman. But this polarization would lead moderate Republicans to cross the aisle and vote with Democrats on many issues.

If the Democratic majority turns out to be leaner than that of the 103rd Congress of 1993-1994, it will also have fewer southern conservatives; and, after a period in the wilderness, it will have more party cohesion and discipline. A return to the broad-based congressional investigations of the 1970s is unlikely. Even Democratic chairmen who are willing to upset business interests will have to operate with smaller committee staffs and a scaled-back General Accounting Office (the result of Republican cuts in the mid-1990s). But many of the members in senior positions came into Congress in the progressive era of the late 1960s and the early 1970s and are more experienced in running hearings and leading investigations than Republicans. Furthermore, Republicans have let their oversight powers dwindle, leaving plenty of material for Democrat-led committees to examine. "In the last six years," says Mike Wessel, former adviser to Minority Leader Gephardt, "we have not seen Republicans exposing what has been happening to average people." ¤