"Playing politics" is an honored tradition on Capitol Hill, where Representatives wager, bluff-and often fold-like inveterate gamblers. But recently, the Hill was home to an entirely new kind of game: musical chairs.
On Jan. 3, the 535 members of the 107th Congress raised their right hands to take the oath of office. Democrats grimly celebrated as they took back control of the Senate, thanks to a 50-50 tie broken by the vote of Vice President Al Gore. It was the briefest majority in history, however. After just 17 days Mr. Gore would be leaving town with his boss, and tie-breaker duties would fall on the new No. 2, Dick Cheney.
The Democrats' temporary majority left the upper chamber largely in limbo as senators struggled to create a workable power-sharing compromise. Not so in the House, where election results left Republicans clearly-if not firmly-in command. The first order of business for the GOP was to award the spoils of victory: control of the legislative committees where the real work of the House is done.
Barely 24 hours after the swearing-in, a special steering committee presented its recommendations for chairmanships of nine key committees; the contests that emerged became an early indicator of conservative strength in the new Congress. In many of the contested races for chairman, one candidate came from the conservative wing of the party, and one from the more moderate faction. Three of those races merited especially close scrutiny by conservative lobbyists.
Iowa's Jim Leach, a longtime leader among House moderates, faced off for the International Relations gavel against Henry Hyde of Illinois, a longtime conservative champion. With oversight on issues like foreign aid and religious persecution, the International Relations Committee is often a lightning rod for conservatives' anger. Mr. Hyde won that contest, but it was the only clear-cut victory for conservatives during a largely disappointing day.
Another controversial committee, Education and the Workforce, saw a three-way struggle for control. The favorite of most conservatives was Michigan's Pete Hoekstra, one of the most outspoken critics of Mr. Clinton's big-government education policies, including Goals 2000 and School-to-Work. Mr. Hoekstra proposed splitting the committee in two, arguing that separate oversight of the education and workforce components would encourage a return to educational basics. His opponents, John Boehner of Ohio and Tom Petri of Wisconsin, resisted that proposal, which lost in a Republican Conference vote on Feb. 2. The next day, Mr. Hoekstra lost as well, and Mr. Boehner claimed the gavel.
Ways and Means, arguably the most powerful committee in the House, also had a clear choice between conservative and moderate. Phil Crane (R-Ill.), a leading
tax-cutter for more than 20 years, faced California's Bill Thomas, a health care expert who has frequently angered conservatives in the past. Mr. Thomas "takes on, in a rather direct way, people who some perceive to be on the right fringe of our party," admitted his colleague, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.). Indeed, leaders of Eagle Forum, Traditional Values Coalition, Free Congress Foundation, and American Association of Christian Schools recently signed an open letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert, charging that "the positions supported by Congressman Bill Thomas are not in line with our members, nor the American people."
Still, the more centrist Mr. Thomas prevailed in a contest where the stakes were especially high: The chairman of the House's main tax-writing committee will shape legislation on issues such as the marriage penalty, the death tax, welfare reform, and education savings accounts.
Despite their importance to advancing the conservative agenda, committee chairmen weren't elected along strict conservative-moderate lines. Instead, the candidates campaigned among their colleagues based on seniority, party loyalty, legislative agenda, even fundraising prowess. (Any would-be chairman now has to form a so-called leadership PAC to raise and distribute money for fellow Republicans in tight races. Those campaign donations are chits that can be called in during the race for a chairman's gavel.)
Things used to be much simpler. Until 1994, chairmanships were awarded strictly on the basis of longevity. Representatives from safe districts would simply outlast their colleagues to inherit a coveted gavel. They could then run their committee as a personal fiefdom until they either died or retired (or went to jail, like former Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois).
The young conservatives who fueled the Republican Revolution, however, didn't want to wait for their more moderate seniors to die off. Under the direction of Newt Gingrich, Republicans limited their chairmen to six consecutive years on the same committee, arguing that new leadership would bring new ideas and cleaner government. The wholesale turnover this year-unprecedented by a party still in the majority-was the fruit of that reform effort.