Washington, DC -- The House yesterday completed its 100-hour legislative spring, passing a bill to eliminate fourteen billion dollars in tax breaks and subsidies for oil and gas companies, and shifting the funds instead to energy conservation and renewable projects. The vote was 264-163, with only four Democrats opposing it, and 36 Republicans voting in favor.
The Democrats "Six for '06" agenda was modelled on Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America" but is playing out very differently. The media has forgotten that while the Contract was viewed as quite successful in helping the Republicans take advantage of the public dissatisfaction with the Democratic leadership in Congress in 1994, Newt played bait and switch -- and the seeds of the failures of the last twelve years of Republican congressional leadership were sowed in those first weeks. The Contract was a list of attractive policy changes, centrist in flavor and populist in tilt. But what the Republicans tried to pass was not what they had promised the American people, but a series of hard-edged reactionary assaults on the government safety net itself -- and as a result, virtually no Democrats voted for it, and enough Republicans voted "No" that most of the Contract didn't even get through the House, and what did was mostly blocked in the Senate.
By contrast, Pelosi has offered legislation that is, if anything, more centrist than her campaign promises. As a result she has almost no Democratic defections and a surprisingly large number of Republican cross-overs to support her -- 82 Republicans voted to raise the minimum wage. The media is expressing surprise that the new leadership in the House has handled itself so deftly. Thomas Bird Edsall, who has been caustic in his cynicism about the new leadership, wrote yesterday in the Times that "Something odd happened on Capitol Hill this week. Something that seemed to start out as a publicity stunt -- the House Democratic leadership's 100-hour agenda -- actually turned into a ... qualified success."
The media was strikingly oblivious to the failure of the pseudo-conservative leadership in Congress to accomplish its goals, keep the legislative process running, or do much of anything right during their twelve years in power, so their clear expectation that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid would be klutzes may reflect ordinary journalistic cynicism -- or some hidden biases. But for the rest of us, there is a lesson here -- not a surprising one really. The reactionaries made a mess of running the legislative branch of the federal government because they don't believe in what it does (pass national legislation), value what it stands for (democracy and openness), or understand how it works (dialogue and compromise). The Democrats are performing better because they actually care about and love what the public has elected them to do -- clean up the mess and get the nation back on track.
But at the same time no one should forget that forty years of virtually unchallenged congressional power had left the Democrats in 2004 highly dysfunctional, and one of the most positive signs is that the lessons of the election of 1994 have not been forgotten. In 2003-2004 for example, the elected Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were, effectively, weak feudal lords of strong Committee Chairs who got their jobs through seniority, not consensus. They wouldn't remove Chairs who weren't appropriate, and they wouldn't stand up to ones who got out of line. Pelosi, at least, is not making those mistakes -- she chose her own leader for the Intelligence Committee, and when it became clear that John Dingell, the Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was not going to provide enthusiastic leadership and a clear message on global warming and energy independence, she chose Ed Markey to chair a select committee to coordinate the House response, and called for legislative action by July 4 -- an extremely ambitious timetable. Dingell pushed back hard in the caucus, but my sources indicate that Pelosi didn't budge, saying simply that as Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee he still controlled the actual legislative process on global warming, but that she expected him to move promptly, and needed the Select Committee to provide a clear message in response to the smoke and mirrors she expects from the White House and Big Carbon.
Similarly, in 2003-2004 the Democratic leadership failed to respond to repeated ethical scandals and issues. This time, in spite of the normal incumbent's desire not to rock the boats on the perks that benefit themselves, the House and Senate have both embraced ethics reforms packages far more sweeping than those they promised on the campaign trail.