TOPICS > Politics

Congress Prepares for Power Shift

December 25, 2006 at 5:35 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: The Republicans’ 12-year domination of Congress officially ends on January 4th. As Democrats prepare to assume the leadership, what lessons can they learn from the Republicans’ experience and their own on what it’s going to take to keep it?

For that, we turn to four former members who all held senior positions while their party was in the House majority. Our two Democrats are Tom Downey of New York, who had 18 years in the House and a prominent role on the Ways and Means Committee, and Martin Frost of Texas. He served for 26 years and was a senior member of the Rules Committee.

Our two Republicans are Bob Livingston of Louisiana, who was chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He resigned after 22 years in the House. And Bob Walker of Pennsylvania, a 20-year veteran of the House, he was vice chairman of the Budget Committee and a member of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s inner circle.

All four former lawmakers are now lobbyists in Washington.

And welcome to you all, gentlemen.

Bob Livingston, I’m going to start with you. You and Bob Walker were part of the Gingrich revolution, came to power in ’94, a very ambitious agenda. What happened in 12 years to squander that that’s instructive for the Democrats going in?

FORMER REP. BOB LIVINGSTON (R), Louisiana: First of all, Margaret, I wouldn’t say we totally squandered it. The fact is that the economy was — is booming today because of what we did.

We lowered taxes, and we had an agenda. That Contract with America worked very, very well. It kept us on course for most of the time we were in, but I think in the last couple of years we got lazy. We just stopped, well, frankly, doing the job.

We were on the track of holding what we’d accomplished rather than being proactive. And I think a lot of it was due to the schedule.

The members of Congress simply weren’t coming in more than, say, Tuesday afternoon to Thursday morning. And I often say that I believe that America’s a full-time nation and it deserves a full-time Congress.

And Congress wasn’t here, and so they couldn’t have oversight. They couldn’t do their jobs. They didn’t understand fully what all the bills were. And they didn’t know each other well enough to compromise with one another so that they could get good, comprehensive, effective, bipartisan legislation.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that it, Bob Walker, not spending the time on the job?

FORMER REP. BOB WALKER (R), Pennsylvania: Well, I think that was certainly part of it. But I would add to that, that one of the real problems was that we did not keep the process open, that there was not enough debate, that there were very few open rules, as such. And so therefore…

MARGARET WARNER: Where the Democrats could actually put their ideas out?

BOB WALKER: And where the House could work its will in the end, because I think that produces the best legislation. So I think that ended up a being a mistake.

And the second thing that I also think was a mistake was the fact that fundraising was made more important than policy-making. And I think, as a result then, you ended up with the whole earmark syndrome and a lot of other things that really ended up destroying the ability to do the kind of policymaking that Congress is supposed to be doing.

Advice: 'be open, be fair'

MARGARET WARNER: Which of those lessons do you take, Tom Downey, as a Democrat and you look at your fellow Democrats taking over?

FORMER REP. TOM DOWNEY (D), New York: Well, I hope that they learn the lessons that they are the first branch of government, and their job is to legislate, it's to educate, and it's to oversee.

And if they do those things, they'll keep their majority. And if they do it in the spirit of cooperation -- and as Bob has suggested, openness -- they will be very different than the Congress that preceded them.

And they need to look only back to the 109th Congress, as Bob Livingston mentioned. It didn't work. There was more corruption. They spent too much time raising money. They didn't do their job. And that's why the Democrats are now in the majority.

Democrats offered a positive agenda. And I think that Speaker Pelosi will do well to see it implemented in the first 100 days. But this idea of being open and being fair, being fiscally prudent, is really what they need to do.

FORMER REP. MARTIN FROST (D), Texas: It was really a sharp break between the two parts of the Republican regime. When Gingrich was speaker, he had ideas. Gingrich knew what he wanted to do. When Gingrich left, I think the decline started for the Republicans.

And I didn't always agree with Gingrich on issues, but when DeLay really became the power, that's when you went to the closed rules. That's when you went to conference committees not functioning. The Democrats were not given the authority or the option to offer amendments on the floor very often.

I hope that the Democrats learn from that and we don't try and replicate what the Republicans did in the last few years, because that would be a fatal mistake for us as a party. And I think the press would -- the honeymoon would be over very quickly with the press. I think they would all over us on that.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Livingston, weigh in on this question about having an agenda. When there's one party that controls both houses of Congress but not the White House, what are the voters' expectations about what they should achieve?

Should they actually pass legislation that they can point to, even if they have to cooperate with the president, which they'd have to? Or is it enough to position themselves against initiatives by the president that they think are unpopular?

BOB LIVINGSTON: Well, obviously, politics is not going to be divorced from the process, Margaret. And the Democrats are going to follow their own principles and their own agenda, and they won't necessarily coincide with the president.

But we have real problems in this country. A year-and-a-half ago, when Katrina hit New Orleans, frankly, Congress was very slow to respond. And the money is just beginning to come down here in New Orleans right now. So, you know, this city was hit with the worst problem in the history of the country as a natural disaster.

So when you throw in problems like that, and immigration, where we built a 700-mile fence for a 2,500-mile border -- if, in fact, the fence will ever be built or funded -- you have to realize that the negotiation process just simply wasn't working.

And I go back to the schedule. They've got to come to Congress. There are a lot of members of Congress that feel that they want to stay home and play politics at home. And my advice to them is: If they want to stay home, they should run for city council or governor or something.

Washington demands, in this very complex world of ours, with North Korea and with Iran looming as big problems, that we get bipartisan solutions. I noticed that Speaker Pelosi is going to hold a lot more hearings, and she's going to have members of Congress there on a more full-time basis. I applaud that.

I think we need to hold hearings on what's going to happen as a result of this war on terrorism and how we should deal with Iran and North Korea.

Working with President Bush


MARTIN FROST: I think one of the other lessons that the Democrats have got to take from what happened in the last few years with the Republicans is, if you have a major problem in the House, don't try and cover it up. Don't try and sweep it under the rug.

I think that things really -- the nail in the coffin for the Republicans losing the majority was the way they handled the page issue, the way they handled that scandal.

MARGARET WARNER: The Mark Foley scandal.

MARTIN FROST: And I hope that Democrats have learned from that. And if we ever have anything like that -- we did have one of those when Tom and I were in the majority. You had a banking scandal, hot checks, and you had some other things. And the Democrats really didn't try to...

TOM DOWNEY: You had to bring that up.

MARTIN FROST: No, I'm not bringing it up personally. I'm just saying that the Democratic leadership -- I'm not talking about any individual member -- but the Democratic leadership really didn't address that early on and say, "Let's deal with that."

And the same thing happened with the Republicans with the business with the pages this time. And I hope the new Democratic leadership learns from that. And if there is any type of internal scandal that it's dealt with quickly and openly.

MARGARET WARNER: But let me let Bob Walker in here just a second.

BOB WALKER: But to go to your point, I think one of the things that the Democrats do have to realize is something, a lesson that we learned very quickly, and that was that governing is hard.

And the fact is, if you're in the majority, you do have to govern, you know, that you can do it in a bipartisan way, you can do it in a totally partisan way.

But in the end, the American people expect that, if you're in control, that you're actually going to govern, that you're going to work with the president, you're going to do the things that are necessary in order to be successful.

If you don't do that and you don't do the hard job of governing -- and that was, I think, one of the problems for the Republicans in recent months, is that they weren't doing some of the hard jobs of governing -- then you aren't doing what the American people expect of you.

MARGARET WARNER: And so that means, does it not, Tom Downey, compromising to some degree with the president, since they don't have a huge majority, even if it doesn't totally satisfy your most liberal base?

TOM DOWNEY: I agree completely with Bob. I think that the Democrats have to work with President Bush, and President Bush has to work with the Democrats.

Ironically, they desperately need each other. And President Bush certainly doesn't want to leave office with the complete failure of Iraq being his only legacy. I mean, he'd like to deal with the issue of passing a minimum wage, dealing with immigration.

And the Democrats can't leave these next two years without, as Bob suggests, governing, having real accomplishments. So that does mean -- and I think it will happen -- that early on you'll see a minimum wage passed. You'll see an effort to really do immigration.

Bob Livingston mentioned the preposterous nonsense of a 700-mile fence for a 2,000-mile border. Clearly, more thoughtful minds can come up with a better plan than this.

And I think that the one issue on which both Democrats and Republicans realize they have to do something is energy. They need to put aside the kind of narrow, geographic interests that usually compel them in one direction or another to actually reduce energy consumption, oil consumption, get higher fuel efficiency standards, do a whole host of things.

MARTIN FROST: And this goes to how the Democrats deal with the power of committee chairs. And it's a big issue, because when we were in control the last time, one of the problems that we sometimes had is that our committee chairs were independent operatives and didn't work necessarily with the Democratic leadership on key issues.

That can't happen this time. I think the new speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is certainly capable of bringing some pretty powerful and experienced people together, but they've got to be on the same page. They can't go off on their own agendas.

And probably no issue is more important and points to that more than energy, because you may have some senior members of the Democratic caucus who won't necessarily want to do things that other members of the caucus want to do.

Hearings about Iraq?

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Livingston, what about the big elephant in the room, Iraq? Now, the president is commander-in-chief. The Democrats, many of them ran on getting out of Iraq pretty quickly. When the president comes up with his new strategy, if the Democrats don't agree, what can they really do about it? How should they handle that?

BOB LIVINGSTON: Well, they have two options. They can go along and work with the president, or they can do as they did in Vietnam and just cut off funding. And I sense that from...

MARGARET WARNER: Which Pelosi has said she's not going to do, I think.

BOB LIVINGSTON: ... comments by Joe Biden -- that's right. Joe Biden and Harry Reid are indicating that they'll probably buy into the president's proposal to increase the number of troops.

But I want to just agree with that business about the committee chairmen. The committee chairmen tend to want to hold all the cards themselves and let the members of their subcommittees and committees know what's in the details of bills at the last second, if at all. Frankly, they're empowering their staff, if they don't know what's in the bills themselves.

But more importantly, we need a more democratic process, where members of the committee have fewer subcommittees to go to, work longer hours, more days, and come to the subcommittees, and know what's in their bills, and challenge their leadership, so that we get good legislation and not simply what one or two members of the leadership wants in a magnificent bill that nobody can read.

BOB WALKER: There is one other power that they have with regard to Iraq, and that is to hold hearings. You know, that will be a tremendous power in the hands of the Democratic Congress at this point.

I mean, there is the opportunity to look at aspects of the Iraq conflict that haven't been looked at previously, because there have not been those kinds of oversight hearings. And so I would expect to see a lot more of that kind of activity than we've seen in recent years.

MARGARET WARNER: But is there a fine line, Martin Frost, on hearings? How far can the majority party go before it looks like a witch hunt or looks like it's looking too back in the past? Where's the line there?

MARTIN FROST: Well, the majority party has to be dealing with legitimate issues. And there are legitimate issues that the Government Reform Committee, under Henry Waxman, will deal with and that the Armed Services Committee under Ike Skelton will deal with.

Sole source, no-bid contracts in Iraq for reconstruction, how were these awarded? How effective were those contracts? What does this mean for the future, not just in Iraq, but in some other area that we may go into, another part of the world?

What happened with -- as Bob Livingston has talked about -- what happened with reconstruction after Katrina, how slowly things went, whether FEMA really should be a part of the new Department of Homeland Security? I was on the special committee that created the Department of Homeland Security, and we made a mistake by putting FEMA as a part of that department.

Democrats' influence on the war

MARGARET WARNER: But do you agree, Tom Downey, the consensus seems to be here that, in terms of Iraq policy, unless the Democrats are willing to use the power of the purse, which Nancy Pelosi said she's not going to, that there's very little they can do to reshape the policy?

TOM DOWNEY: That's right. I mean, Fulbright in the '60s held very important hearings on Vietnam that did educate the American public as to the consequences of that conflict continuing.

I think that Biden and House members can do the same thing in terms of Iraq, but the instruments that the Congress wields in foreign policy are, for the most part, crude and not particularly subtle tools.

And foreign policy lends itself to subtlety and sometimes cleverness. And the tool, as Bob mentioned, is, one, you can do the hearings and, as Martin has also talked about, and they need to be done. We need to look at war profiteering; we need to look at a whole host of issues about planning.

But it will ultimately come down -- it won't happen right away, because the Democrats want to leave a good first impression. And the fact is, if the Democrats start to cut the money off for the war, the president would say, "You're not supporting the troops." That's not where Democrats want to be.

MARTIN FROST: The most interesting thing that could happen right away is for the Armed Services Committee, either on the House or the Senate side, to give the chairman of the Joint Chiefs the opportunity to come in and say whether they agree with the president.

There have been press reports that they don't agree with the president about sending more troops into Iraq right now.

BOB WALKER: About the surge.

MARTIN FROST: Yes, about the surge. And that would be an interesting issue to explore.

BOB WALKER: But the governing problem for the Democrats will be that, if you hold hearings and you enthuse your base with what you have learned in the hearings, then they're going to expect you to do something policy-wise. And that makes it very difficult, because you don't have very many tools to take on the policy.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Livingston, do you want to...

BOB LIVINGSTON: Well, I think that...


BOB LIVINGSTON: Yes, I was just going to say that, if the hearings go off on wild tangents, the American people are going to hold the Democrats accountable. People are going to be looking to see whether or not they can govern, as you've indicated right at the outset of this segment.

And I would believe that, if they really start impeaching George Bush and immediately pulling out of Iraq, the American people are going to get turned off real quickly. And they're not going to have a very long rope to hang themselves.

TOM DOWNEY: The Democrats are not going to impeach George Bush. And they're not going to do...

BOB WALKER: Despite what Sean Penn said.

TOM DOWNEY: Right, despite what Sean Penn said.

And they're not going to do what our old friend, Dan Burton, did, to have three days of hearings on the White House Christmas card list. That's the sort of abuse of nonsense that, with all due respect to my Republican friends, they did during the Clinton years that the Democrats will not repeat.

MARGARET WARNER: And, gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you all four very much.

BOB WALKER: Nice to be with you.

TOM DOWNEY: Thank you.