A Democratic House: Why It Matters
"The power of the majority is the power to set the agenda. It changes everything. And this election comes at a time when the center is just about worn out as a place to govern from. People want things done."
Representative George Miller is excited as he talks on a cell phone while driving down a Northern California highway. He has fought the good fight through the worst of times. He chafed against the brain-dead leadership of Democratic Speaker Tom Foley a decade ago. He railed against Gingrich and the right. He defended Clinton against the lynch mob, despite disdain for his New Democrat triangulations. He's run time after time into a brick wall in the form of GOP whip Tom DeLay, who uses the Rules Committee to keep bills from coming to a vote.
And now he can taste what victory would mean: A Democratic majority. DeLay dethroned. Miller himself as chairman of Education and the Workforce. You can hear the rush in his voice; it's a chance to make a difference.
The possibility of the Democrats' taking back the House is still only a very big "if" this election year. And even should they succeed, their margin won't be more than a handful, at best. Conservatives--Republicans plus Blue Dog and New Democrats--will still have an operating majority. And, as Miller knows, New Democrats are peddling themselves to corporate America, raising big bucks for their PAC, promising to protect corporate interests if Democrats come back into power. Moreover, Republicans are likely to retain control of the Senate in any case.
Still, there are some reasons for optimism, especially if Al Gore is elected President. "The House isn't like the Senate," Miller says. "It's winner-take-all here. The majority rules--literally." In the Senate, minority members can propose amendments, force votes, introduce legislation. But in the House, the leadership of the majority decides what comes to the floor, what gets debated and what gets voted on. Currently, he says, "we have 49 percent of the members, but we don't get 49 percent of the agenda. We get next to nothing." As an example, he points to the minimum wage. "Now we can't get a clean vote; every bill comes up loaded with Republican tax cuts for the wealthy," he says. "If we have the majority, the Congress will vote on raising the minimum wage, period. And it will pass overwhelmingly."
In the House, the Speaker packs the Rules Committee, and the Rules Committee determines what issues get to the floor and what the rules are for the debate. The committee can decide that no amendments will be allowed, or allow a choice between alternatives, or force an up or down vote on one alternative only. In the various other committees, the chair, backed by the majority, determines when the committee meets and what it focuses on.
Thus, even a small Democratic majority will transform the situation. "Take trade," says Representative Barney Frank. "We will bring out a trade bill that requires protection of labor rights and the environment. The free-traders will have to vote for that or get nothing. Now we don't even get to vote on a good trade bill. But with the majority, they'll have to decide--the right kind of bill or nothing at all. As Representative John Dingell said, 'Let me control the procedure and I'll never lose.'"
For liberals, this power to set the agenda is magnified because, as one senior leadership staffer noted, "the leadership and most of the committee chairs are more liberal than the caucus." In a Democratic House, Dick Gephardt becomes Speaker; David Bonior, majority leader; John Conyers, chairman of Judiciary; David Obey, chairman of Appropriations; Charles Rangel, chairman of Ways and Means; George Miller, chairman of Education and the Workforce; Pete Stark, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. Members of the black caucus will chair more than twenty committees or subcommittees. The list goes on.