Democratic Freshmen Demand Congressional Reform SomedayRichard S. Dunham
They campaigned as reformers who would shake a corrupt Congress to its core. But now that they're in, the 63 new Democratic House members seem satisfied merely to save the nation. "We, as freshmen, want to change this institution, but more than anything, we want to address the country's problems," says Representative-elect Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Adds Representative-elect Corrine Brown (D-Fla.): "The people's main concern is jobs, jobs, jobs."
Democratic leaders haven't totally co-opted the new crop of lawmakers. But they've persuaded them to put their reform schemes on the back burner. The freshmen have been convinced that breaking the Washington gridlock must take priority--and that will take cooperation with the leadership and the Clinton White House. Representative-elect Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky (D-Pa.) says internal reforms can wait until Congress passes an investment tax credit, research and development incentives, and expanded individual retirement accounts. "We've got to pump up the economy," she says. "We all want to hit the ground running, but we don't want to be unreasonable."
HEAVY PRESSURE. It took some fancy footwork to get the new members to put aside plans to slash perks, dump committee chairmen--perhaps even depose Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). Leaders came up with a divide-and-conquer strategy. First, they flew to three regional meetings with freshmen-to-be that gave leaders a chance to present their view of the nation's problems before the newcomers had a chance to plot their own course. And they discouraged the new troops from attending a planned bipartisan meeting of freshmen in Omaha. The gathering fizzled, as only 14 new members, all Republicans, showed up.
To add pressure, leaders made an unprecedented offer to put first-termers on every committee except Rules, which has no vacancies. Few freshmen would sacrifice a seat on Ways & Means or Appropriations to make a run at the Speaker's perks and privileges.
To close the deal, the Democratic leadership promised to offer unspecified reforms in the future. And the freshmen, most of whom have served in elective office, responded to reminders that reforms forced by the rebellious class of 1974 are now widely believed to have made things worse. "You have to understand what the problems are before you can solve them," says Representative-elect Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), a state senator.
GOP freshmen accuse their colleagues across the aisle of selling out. "They're caught between their campaign pledges and their leadership," notes Representative-elect James M. Talent (R-Mo.). "I'm not surprised at all." But Republicans haven't lost hope of some freshman solidarity. Representative-elect Tillie K. Fowler (R-Fla.), who worked with a Democratic majority on the Jacksonville city council, plans a bipartisan meeting of freshmen before Congress meets in January. "I'm hopeful we can have some coalition-building," she says, "but I'm realistic enough to know it won't be easy." The new Democrats say they will eventually return to their reform agenda. "Voters are plain and simple tired of the abuse of privilege in Washington," says Representative-elect Tim Holden (D-Pa.). "We must restore honesty and integrity to the people's House."
For now, though, the freshmen's willingness to defer reform and concentrate on Bill Clinton's economic agenda is a big break for the leadership. But unless voters are willing to give Congress a lot of credit for an improved economy by the next election, the first-termers may find it tough to explain why they were so quick to shelve their reform pledges.