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December 01, 2006

The New Majority

Ej Dionne's excellent column today notes the generational tension between the old liberal lions who'll be chairing the committees in the new Congress and the young turks, more used to a parliamentary, command-and-control system meant to support perpetual campaigning. I'm not sure if those groups will actually conflict, but the Speaker will have to navigate two very different types of perspectives: One in which Congressmen are powerful, the other in which they're drones.

You just wouldn't see any of the younger members shattering message discipline as violently as Charlie Rangel did when he stepped forward a week ago and proposed a draft. You don't do that to your caucus. Rangel, however, does not see himself as a cog in the caucus -- he's a committee chair, a power center, and can do as he pleases. Whether it pleases other people isn't his problem.

It's worth saying, though, that the composition of these chairs is very different than it has been in past Congresses. Whatever electoral difficulties it imposes, the South's abandonment of the Democratic Party has freed the Donkey from its eldest, most powerful conservatives. Southern Democrats used to chair all manner of committees (the South tends to elect younger and reelect longer than other regions, thus advantaging itself in the seniority oriented Congress) and formed an impenetrable voting veto against liberalism. That era is done. The new chairs are old school liberals, the new members a mixture of progressive populists and process-oriented technocrats. Whatever divides exist between those groups, they're far more bridgeable than anything that existed between the crusty Dixiecrats and the Democratic mainstream. It will be a Congress like this one that passes universal health care. And it will be because the South's hammerlock on the institution has lifted.

December 1, 2006 | Permalink


Whatever electoral difficulties it imposes, the South's abandonment of the Democratic Party has deprived the Donkey of its eldest, most powerful conservatives.

Weird sentence. From the rest of the post, I assume you think that fewer Southern Chairs is a good thing, but the sentence seems to say the opposite.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Dec 1, 2006 10:54:13 AM

You're right -- I changed it.

Posted by: Ezra | Dec 1, 2006 11:16:03 AM

The impression one gets in reading the Dionne column is that there is a large group of chairmen who intend to continue exactly what they were doing before they were so rudely interrupted by the twelve-year Republican reign.

However, of all the people who will chair House committees in the 110th Congress, exactly one (John Dingell, Energy & Commerce) was a long-time chair of his committee prior to 1994. David Obey will again chair the Appropriations Committee, but he had only served in that capacity for seven months before the 1994 election. Two others, John Conyers and George Miller, chaired different committees from the ones they will lead in January. Everyone else will be a committee chair for the first time. In fact, none of the other chairs were even the ranking members for the entire period of Republican control.

It is foolish to believe that the conflict Dionne assumes is inevitable. If there is one thing that being in the minority has taught Members, it is the value of a united caucus.

Posted by: Vadranor | Dec 1, 2006 2:29:05 PM

It will be a Congress like this one that passes universal health care. And it will be because the South's hammerlock on the institution has lifted.

The Democrats will pass universal health care when pigs fly. There's a better chance of the Republicans retaking Congress in the future and passing something like universal health care as a pro-business measure.

Posted by: Alon Levy | Dec 1, 2006 3:16:27 PM

I think Pelosi has her mind caucas unity, and she will be far more powerful than the committee chairs. Don't underestimate the determination of this seasoned pol. She made the minority effective for the first time in a real long time. She is aware of the historisity of her role, and she will perform.

(As an illustration of what Pelosi may be like: when in the USAF as a NCO and instructor of mixed officer/nco students, I sat outside the office of the branch chief, a female major of similar grit to Nancy Pelosi. Every now and then the Major would emerge from her office, issue some firm instructions to the Senior Master Sargeant that was Superintendent of the tech school, glare for a moment or two while her instructions sunk in, and then turn, tug down her girdle, and strut back into her office. She owned that organization, and the Captains, Lieutenants and NCO's saluted her instructions completely and without fail.)

Nancy won't fail on unity.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Dec 1, 2006 4:15:00 PM

There are a few exceptions. Ike Skelton (Armed Services) is basically a Southern Democrat, and I think the Ag Cmte chair is a Blue Dog too. But in general the point holds.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Dec 1, 2006 6:46:01 PM

My recollection of 94 is that the dems proposed universal health insurance, settled on a 99% coverage with a universal health insurance trigger but saw it fillibustered by the GOP on the floor of the senate. In other words, it wasn't dissension in the ranks that killed it.

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