Chaos On The Hill

As Speaker of the House, Thomas S. Foley is an enlightened ruler in a job often filled by petty tyrants. But the sad-eyed, soft-spoken Foley's reasonableness, affability, and distaste for brutal confrontation have helped produce a crisis that now threatens his job--as well as what little remains of public respect for Congress.

After six months of scandal over check-kiting at the House bank, drug dealing and embezzlement at the House post office, and unpaid bills in the House restaurant, Capitol Hill is in turmoil. Some House Democrats are just heading for the hills of retirement. Others are urging their leadership to declare all-out war on the White House and such Republican tormentors as House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But until Congress straightens itself out, the country's business is on hold. "There's no precedent for this in history, where the frailties of the institution are on naked display," says Brookings Institution political scientist Thomas E. Mann. A veteran lobbyist adds that House members are "walking around in shell shock. The institution is breaking down."

TOO PASSIVE? The chaos on the Hill, and the prospect of a flood of new members come November, mean business leaders and lobbyists need to update their scorecards. Key players on the committees that handle business-oriented legislation--Ways & Means, Appropriations, Public Works, and Banking--are on their way out the door (table). Executives will have to get used to new faces and, perhaps, new rules.

Many lawmakers blame Foley for the turmoil. They say he was too passive in handling early reports of abuse of banking privileges by House members. A target of much of the grousing is Foley's wife, Heather, who as the Speaker's unpaid chief of staff doles out many of the perks and guards access to her husband. She recently testified before a federal grand jury investigating embezzlement and drug dealing in the House post office. The Foleys deny misconduct and have released a letter from the U.S. Attorney's office stating that Heather is not a target of an investigation into possible obstruction of justice.

The House's scandals, meanwhile, are becoming ever more tawdry. After being asked on nationwide television why he didn't fire former House Sergeant-at-Arms Jack Russ, who oversaw the House bank and bounced numerous checks of his own, Foley was forced to deny rumors that Russ had "dirt on him." And House officials now are probing allegations of illegal wiretapping of members' offices by the Capitol Police.

The crisis on Capitol Hill was building long before Foley became Speaker in 1989. The Democratic leadership is caught between the tradition-bound world of privilege that has coddled House members for 200 years and the real world of voters who expect lawmakers to forgo privileges and solve problems. Foley faces the challenge of ushering in a new culture without undue disruption. "I'm not advocating overthrow," says Representative Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.), a rising star. "But the leadership's future depends a lot on how much reform we get between now and November."

For the near term, the leadership is pushing a three-pronged plan to get the House back on track. But members are busy trying to maintain their balance as the ground shifts beneath their feet. Such perks as free prescriptions, cut-rate gymnasium fees, and low-cost gifts in the stationery store are history. Other free goodies--chauffeur-driven cars, fresh-cut flowers, airport parking--could become casualties once House leaders complete a wide-ranging review.

CALL A PRO. Scurrying to contain the public ire, the House also is ringing down the curtain on its cherished patronage system. Thousands of House employees--from elevator operators to the doorkeeper who oversees a $10 million budget and a small army of greeters, escorters, baggage handlers, and pages--are now supposed to come under a merit system. Foley and House Republican leaders are negotiating a plan to turn over the administration of the House--it has been run by the Democrats for the last 38 years--to a professional manager.

But many members want more far-reaching changes. After years of going nowhere, reform proposals aimed at streamlining the creaky legislative process are getting a serious hearing. One would slash the number of committees, not to mention all the panels' subcommittees. Another urges the House and Senate leadership to set a joint agenda with five or six items, then work together to carry it out.

But if Foley embraces some of the more energetic reforms, he could ignite a civil war with the barons of his own party, particularly Ways & Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), Energy & Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), and Appropriations Chairman Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.). They have authority over most of the legislation that goes through the House, and their huge staffs make their committees power centers that allow them openly to challenge the Democratic leadership. "We need to get to a lean and mean operation," says Representative Dan Glickman (D-Kan.). "The Speaker and Majority Leader have to be willing to take on the committee chairs."

For now, Foley and Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) are resisting calls for an assault on the chairmen's power. But that may change in the new Congress. Because of redistricting, retirements, and the likely defeat of some longtime incumbents, experts predict there could be 120 new faces on the Hill next year. Many of the freshmen will have no loyalty to the leadership and no stake in the status quo.

In an attempt to prevent a Democratic slaughter in November, aides say the leadership has adopted a threefold strategy: Complete the institutional reforms by mid-April, turn the spotlight on the Executive Branch's alleged abuse of perks, and move fast on legislation Democrats want to campaign on this fall. High on the list: an energy strategy, a get-tough trade bill, health care reform, an overhaul of unemployment insurance, and new campaign-finance rules.

BLAME-SHIFTING. That approach is unlikely to get Congress back into voters' good graces. If the institutional reforms are too modest and arcane, they won't convince the public that lawmakers have given up on the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Exposing the White House's abuse of perks may make Democrats feel better, but the outside world is likely to view it as a feeble attempt to shift the blame.

The focus on legislation may be the most troublesome. The Democratic leadership is suffering a shortage of followers. In recent days, Foley and other leaders have been rebuffed in their efforts to reprogram defense spending for domestic needs and to override President Bush's veto of a tax bill. Even if any of the measures on the new wish-list actually make it through the House and the Senate, they face almost certain vetoes. "What's hurting us across the country is the sense that nothing ever happens," groans Penny. "I don't mind getting down to a serious agenda but not if it's just to pick a partisan fight."

Foley's big test will come in the November elections. If the Democrats lose more than 30 seats, the GOP could team with Democratic conservatives to form a working majority. Should that happen, Democrats may decide that they have had enough of the avuncular style and elect a leader with a taste for the jugular.

      By Apr. 1, 45 House members and six senators were headed out, including:
      REPRESENTATIVE CARL D. PURSELL (MICH.) The senior Republican on the House 
      Appropriations Committee, the panel that controls the nation's pursestrings. 
      Seven other Appropriations members are leaving
      REPRESENTATIVE ED JENKINS (GA.) A moderate Democrat on the tax-writing Ways & 
      Means Committee. Five other panel members are headed out, too
      REPRESENTATIVE ROBERT A. ROE (N.J.) The Democratic Chairman of the House Public 
      Works Committee, one of the Hill's biggest pork barrels. The panel's senior 
      Republican, 13-term John P. Hammerschmidt (Ark.), also is retiring
      REPRESENTATIVE DOUG BARNARD (GA.) A prominent Democrat on the House Banking 
      Committee. The panel's leading Republican, Representative Chalmers P. Wylie 
      (Ohio), also may retire
      DATA: BW
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