Congress: Cool Hands Take Over Hot Season

Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) is ready to roll. After an awkward one-month transition following the resignation of Jim Wright (D-Tex.), Foley wants the House to emerge from the shadows of ethical woes and Wright's party dominance.

Following one of the least productive and most contentious six-month periods in recent congressional history, laborers in the nation's legislative shop are back tending to business. As Congress returns this week from its Independence Day recess, lawmakers will be going out of their way to work late and cast lots of votes.

Whether the public will appreciate their efforts--or the change from recent turmoil to a kinder and gentler Congress--remains to be seen. But by engaging in more traditional, more civil forms of debate and conflict--showing the members' differences on such issues as federal spending priorities, defense policy and campaign-finance laws--Foley hopes to restore what he calls "a sense of respect and accommodation" in the House.

"Many members on both sides of the aisle felt that we were going in a direction that was undesirable and not productive," he said.

Foley and other leading House Democrats don't have much to offer yet in the way of bold initiatives or big differences with President George Bush. Aside from the new Speaker's emphasis on improving the overall mood, he may have rightly determined that the Democrats, with their House and Senate majorities, need simply show they can help govern. In the wake of the debacle surrounding the 1988 presidential candidacy of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, Democrats have spent relatively little time discussing what they did wrong and what they should do next.

As an ideological centrist, one with a conciliatory approach who bridges the gap between old and new styles of leadership, Foley is well-placed to promote healing and renewal in the House and in the nation. A protege of the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson, a defense hawk, Foley initially gained House influence as a leader of the 1970s congressional reform movement. That effort spread power from autocratic, usually more conservative committee chairmen to junior members nurtured by the Vietnam and Watergate experiences.

On a broader scale, Foley wants House Democrats to look earnest--and also look good--so that they can stem a decline in the party's national fortunes. Although insiders agree that Wright led a highly aggressive two-year period of legislative activity, he did not become well-known publicly until his stormy resignation and his achievements had little apparent impact in shaping the debate or public attitudes during the 1988 campaign.

Like new Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), Foley has impressed colleagues with a soothing demeanor suitable for national television. But some Democrats worry that their two chief leaders lack sufficient firmness or zest to play hard-ball with combative Republican partisans like House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater. (Atwater suffered a self-inflicted wound when the the new Speaker took office, by allowing circulation of a memo describing how Foley was "coming out of the liberal closet.")

Foley's efforts to take control of the House were slowed by another Democratic departure; Majority Whip Tony L. Coelho (D-Merced) abruptly resigned following revelations of questionable financial dealings.

The chief partners subsequently chosen by the the House Democratic Caucus to work with Foley have considerable political acumen. What remains to be seen is how well they work together as a team and how long it will take them to establish their collective leadership style.

Questions abound, especially about new Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), whose political fortunes plummeted following a disappointing showing in last year's presidential primaries. He returned to the House amid considerable doubt about what role, if any, he would play. The startling series of personnel changes left Gephardt, whose inclusive style has long made him popular among colleagues, well-positioned for a return to influence.

But he began his career as the Democrats' No. 2 House leader on a curious track when he gave a lengthy acceptance speech that struck many members as better-suited for a campaign than for a closed-door session with his peers. His remarks--including his nationalistic trade rhetoric--posed potential for conflict or collision with free-trader Foley by laying out an agenda of national issues and the outlines of a Democratic response. Such comments have generally been seen as the purview of the Speaker. Although the two have worked together in the past and Gephardt said, "our relationship could not be stronger," it may take time for him to adjust to playing on Foley's team.

Similarly, new Majority Whip William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) has had relatively little experience as a vote-counter on the House floor. Gray is respected by a cross section of Democrats and he increased his stature last year by helping bridge differences between Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But he must prove his ability to address an array of legislative issues under Foley's direction.

The new team has had a difficult initiation. Taking their posts in the middle of a session, the three party leaders have had to plunge into the standard legislative schedule without adequate time to organize separate or joint operations.

Perhaps Foley's biggest challenge will be tempering some of the autonomy enjoyed by House committee chairmen. Even with the greater accountability imposed by the reformers in the 1970s, Democrats regularly face the spectacle of "rogue" chairmen moving in their own directions, often to the dismay of rank-and-file lawmakers. Foley's cautious style means that any change will evolve slowly. But he may have tipped his hand by scheduling regular meetings with the chairmen--a rarity in recent years.

Despite Foley's intentions, long-range planning often is overcome by events. In the next month, for example, he may find himself tied down by the continuing heat rising from the recent Supreme Court decision that upheld flag-burning. Foley, like Mitchell, hopes that his preference for a tougher federal statute can take the momentum away from the vocal proponents of a more far-reaching constitutional amendment.

With Bush showing an occasional proclivity to press political "hot buttons," Foley's cool rationality faces a tough season in summertime Washington.

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