Chances are you've never heard of Chet Edwards. Even in the Capitol, only a discreet lapel pin signals that the boyish Texan is a member of the House of Representatives.
But Edwards is unlikely to stay obscure for long. In recent weeks, he and five other freshman Democrats have sparked a revolt in the House. These backbenchers--the Gang of Six--have just strong-armed their own leadership into promising a vote on a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget. Impressive stuff for lawmakers whose names aren't household words even in their own districts.
Usually, House neophytes are seen little and heard hardly at all. But the current Congress includes a collection of new, ambitious lawmakers--both Democrats and Republicans--with little use for tradition. These Young Turks want action. Now. They're poised to get it.
That prospect isn't taken lightly by the House's old bulls. Many of them believe the insurgents threaten chaos by forcing showdowns on controversial issues and internal reforms. "They'd destroy the institution to save it," sniffs one senior Democratic staffer. More important, with a huge freshman class arriving next January, today's insurgents could become leaders of a movement that could topple the House leadership. "The level of frustration has reached volcanic proportions," says Mike McCurry, a Democratic consultant. "It is bottled up and ready to blow."
To make up for their lack of formal power in the House, the new-breed members have mastered the politics of sound bites and talk shows. Above all, they've exploited the public's roiling discontent. Young Republicans battered down the resistance of Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) to force full disclosure of the House Bank scandal. The Democrats overcame the opposition of the leadership on the balanced-budget amendment. "The myth that as a freshman member you need to keep quiet has evaporated," says fourth-termer Richard Armey (R-Tex.).
The Democratic Gang's uprising began two months ago at a Mexican restaurant on Capitol Hill. Over chiles rellenos, the moderate-to-conservative lawmakers decided to revive the moribund budget amendment. With the Democratic Establishment reeling from the bank scandal, the Young Turks staged a press conference, lobbied taxpayers' groups, and generated calls and letters from around the country. "We saw that as an opportunity to take advantage of a political situation to get some reform," says Representative Pete Geren (D-Tex.), the group's unofficial leader. Suddenly, other members began to sign on. Still, gang members were stunned when House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a longtime foe of the amendment, predicted that it would pass. A vote is expected by July 4.
WHISTLE-BLOWERS. While Geren and his allies--L. F. Payne (Va.), Gary A. Condit (Calif.), Bill K. Brewster (Okla.), Charles J. Luken (Ohio), and Edwards--have been working behind the scenes,the Republican freshmen have been coming on with the subtlety of a hurricane. Last year, when these representatives learned of a General Accounting Office report citing hundreds of bad checks written by House members, they were furious that their leaders were content to join Democrats in sweeping it under the rug. The young Republicans declared war. Says Representative John A. Boehner (R-Ohio): "Seven freshmen have about as much power around here as the lint on the carpet. Our only chance of succeeding was to get America as mad as we were."
Boehner and his compatriots--Scott L. Klug (Wis.), Richard J. Santorum (Pa.), Charles H. Taylor (N.C.), John T. Doolittle (Calif.), Frank D. Riggs (Calif.), and Jim Nussle (Iowa)--blitzed talk shows, editorial boards, and columnists. Nussle became the poster child of the revolution when he appeared on the House floor with a bag over his head to dramatize his embarrassment at the scandal.
Within a week, the House voted to close its bank. That wasn't enough: They wanted the names of the abusers. "I personally even tried to crash a leadership meeting . . . to let them know we weren't going to let this die," boasts Nussle, 31, the youngest Turk. Fearful House members then voted to release all the names--but at a price to the GOP Turks, two of whom, Riggs and Klug, were on the list of shame. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who pioneered their bomb-throwing style throughout the '80s, was also embarrassed by 22 bad checks, while another GOP hero, Vin Weber of Minnesota, decided not to seek reelection after his 125 overdrafts set off a storm back home.
The upstarts' tactics horrify political veterans. Former House Speaker Jim Wright dismisses them as vapid media hogs and sees little difference between the gangs other than paper bags: "One is just more dignified than the other."
COMING BATTLES. But such scoffing doesn't deter the iconoclasts. The Republicans want to limit terms and win more power for the GOP on key committees. The Democrats want to hack away at overlapping committee jurisdictions and push for the spending cuts or tax increases needed for a balanced budget. Although the Democratic Turks say they'd like to work within the system, "if it takes getting beat up to move the party to the center, I'm willing to do it," says Condit. With the arrival of more than 100 new members next year, Representative Jim Leach (R-Iowa) worries that "a more undisciplined Congress" would only deepen the gridlock now gripping Washington.
Some Turks themselves may not be around for that. Six of the Republicans face tough reelection battles. And several Democrats could be swept away in the anti-incumbent storm they helped loose. But whatever their fate as individuals, they have begun a wave of reform that may change forever a House mired in scandal and institutional impotence.