GOP Payback: Members Plot Vengeance for Pelosi’s Iron Rule
With their hopes of a House takeover soaring, Republicans must decide between getting things done and getting back at their tormenters. Lloyd Grove talks to lawmakers about the wounds inflicted by Nancy Pelosi—and whether they can resist the revenge play.
Congressman Peter Roskam, a two-term Republican from the Chicago suburbs, has no illusions about life in the House minority.
Last year, as a junior Republican on the mighty Ways and Means Committee, the 49-year-old Roskam offered a nonpartisan, good-government amendment to the healthcare reform bill speeding like a freight train to the House floor. His amendment would have attacked Medicare fraud, currently an estimated 10 percent of payments, using the same sophisticated “predictive modeling” technique that has allowed credit card companies to reduce their bogus transactions to less than one percent. When an anomalous charge appears—say, the purchase of a ball gown in Budapest by a member of the Wednesday Bowling League in Wheaton, Illinois—a red flag goes up, and the credit card company verifies before paying the charge.
“Right now, Medicare pays out the money and then chases it down later to determine whether it’s fraudulent or not,” Roskam explains. “It’s a foolish way of doing things, and there are dozens of reasons why it shouldn’t continue. It’s costing us a fortune.”
Roskam’s was one of 38 Republican amendments quickly rejected in committee by a straight party-line vote. “For whatever reason, the Speaker decided, along with Chairman [Charlie] Rangel, that they didn’t want any Republican amendments on this bill, no matter how meritorious,” Roskam says.
In due course the sausage was made, and the bill became law. But in the interim, Roskam received a phone call at home from Nancy-Ann DeParle, the director of President Obama’s Office of Health Care Reform.
“Congressman,” she told him, “I’ve been going through all the Republican healthcare amendments in Ways and Means, and I just read yours. Why didn’t this pass? This is a great idea!”
To which Roskam replied: “Nancy-Ann, welcome to our world!”
Just how marginalized and abused have House Republicans felt under four years of Democratic rule and the velvet fist of Speaker Nancy Pelosi? And what will they do to exact revenge if, as widely predicted, they regain the majority less than five weeks from now in the midterm elections?
“James Madison, who was so focused on the rights of the minority, is spinning in his grave,” Dreier says.
The answer to the first question is: Very marginalized, very abused. A new book, She’s The Boss: The Disturbing Truth About Nancy Pelosi by conservative pundit Rochelle Schweizer, purports to present a damning bill of particulars against the much-demonized Speaker of the House, whom Schweizer calls “the Titanium Queen.” And former House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, who can’t wait to grab the gavel back from Democratic Chairman Louise Slaughter after the midterm elections, will on Wednesday release a minority report branding the 111th Congress “the most closed Congress in history.”
• Linda Hirshman: White Women Dump the Dems• Kirsten Powers: Losing the American Dream “James Madison, who was so focused on the rights of the minority, is spinning in his grave,” Dreier says. “I’m frankly stunned as I go through the report, because I look at things ad seriatum when I’m dealing with them, but to look at them en masse is a revelation.”
Dreier acknowledges that his hands aren’t entirely clean. He says, “Sure, I could have done better,” when from 1999 to 2007 he was chairman of Rules, the committee through which the speaker determines precisely how restrictively a piece of legislation will be voted on—deciding which amendments are germane and which are not. Under Pelosi—unlike any previous speaker, Dreier claims—bills come to the floor under a “closed rule,” and nobody can offer an amendment that has not been previously authorized, particularly on the appropriations bills that actually spend the taxpayers’ money.
"Since Speaker Pelosi took the gavel we've been shut out of virtually everything,” complains Republican Kevin Brady of Texas. “I just feel that without open amendments on appropriations, which has been the tradition for decades, there was someone who didn't believe that open debate in the House was good.”
The answer to the second question—will the Republicans seek revenge?—is more complicated, requiring a calculation of their high-minded rhetoric, minus the pesky record of their past behavior, multiplied by the primal impulses of human nature.
“This is a tough business. This is a tough town,” says Republican political operative David Bossie, who was a House staffer when Bill Clinton was president. “When you act as authoritarian as Nancy Pelosi has, when you treat the minority the way Henry Waxman [the wily Democrat from California] and these other chairmen of the committees have disrespected the ranking members, both in the House and Senate, no question" there will be payback. In other words: Vengeance is mine, sayeth the GOP.
“Those ranking members are now going to be called chairmen,” Bossie says. “Back in 1994, Speaker Gingrich basically had to order the new incoming chairmen to not do to the new ranking members what had been done to them. But that took a lot of discipline, to be candid, in the Republican Party not to do it."
The House Republicans—with Newt Gingrich as speaker and Tom “The Hammer” DeLay as majority leader—didn’t do the Dems any favors, to be sure, though their power was tempered, at least for the first four years of their reign, by the presence of a Democratic president.
“We didn’t run the House like Caesar’s wife for 12 years, but we’re pikers compared to what the Democrats have done with closed rules and backroom negotiations,” claims Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette, referring to Pelosi’s iron control of the legislative process that excludes all but authorized amendments and cuts out Republicans, and many Democrats, from key meetings where decisions are made.
“But I think we engage in payback at our own risk,” adds LaTourette, who came to the House with the Gingrich majority. “We’re always told, ‘Don’t talk about process. Nobody gives a damn back home.’ But for the first time in my political career, the process is something to talk about. People understand things like: Read the bill! No backroom deals! And the shelf life of the public’s patience appears to be getting shorter. Ours was 12 years. Theirs appears to be four. If we exact payback and behave poorly this time, ours could be two.”
A re-empowered Republican majority won’t mistreat their former tormenters “because of a sober recognition that the public’s tolerance for non-productivity is at an all-time low,” argues Roskam, a member of the minority leadership as a deputy whip. “Fundamentally, everybody is looking at this process and they’re saying it’s desperately broken, and we’re at a very serious, perilous time…The voters have an expectation that people are going to come up here to try and solve problems as opposed to doing what we’ve seen in the past.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer—who predictably rejects the popular scenario of a Republican victory on November 2nd—doesn’t claim Democratic purity, but argues that it was Gingrich who started the cycle of abuse that persists to this day.
“They say they’re going to be more transparent, more this, more that. We’ll have to see,” Hoyer scoffs. “The reality is that Newt Gingrich had a theory, and the theory was, ‘Bob Michel, I don’t agree with you. Bob Michel, you want to work things so that the Congress passes bills that are consensus bills’ ”—a reference to the courtly former House minority leader of the 1980s and early ‘90s who often reached across the aisle to get things done. “Newt Gingrich’s theory was: As long as you do that, there’s no reason for the public to change leadership. What you have to do is confront. You have to accuse. You have to denigrate—so that the public comes to believe that the institution is broken, it’s immoral, it’s da-da-da-da, whatever. And therefore they will turn to us!”
Hoyer continues his parable: “Newt Gingrich pursued that theory for 16 years. Bob Michel left the Congress. Newt Gingrich prevailed. And, very frankly, that lesson was to some degree learned by the Democrats. To the extent that we continue to do that, the public is going to be frustrated and the legislative process will not work well. But that has been the underlying operational principle that the Republicans have pursued during this Congress and, frankly, during the last Congress.”
Gingrich, now a Fox News commentator, didn’t respond to my request for his take on Hoyer’s analysis, but David Dreier disbelieving exclaims: “Oh my gosh! A speaker who left 12 years ago gets the blame?”
Rep. Jane Harman of California is a Democrat who, like the Republicans, has felt the speaker’s lash. Pelosi punished her independent behavior by denying her the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee. Harman declines to discuss Pelosi. “I think demonizing people is unproductive, and I’m not going to do it,” she says.
“I call this place a toxic pit,” Harman goes on. “We have to change the paradigm. Whether the Democrats hold the majority, or the Republicans take over, the number of seats difference is going to be much smaller. So the temptation to do payback on either side will be great. The public is sick of this blame-the-other-guy thinking. They want us to join the other guy and solve the problems. That is what I think will be required of those who make it through the gantlet of this November.”
Benjamin Sarlin contributed to this report.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.