WASHINGTON -- "We are looking more and more like the Democrats we replaced," a House committee chairman told me Wednesday. That comment came before he learned, to his surprise and sorrow, that the House Republican leadership had removed Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The extraordinary purge buttressed the growing impression of arrogance as Republicans enter their second decade of power in the House.
The party's House leaders purportedly removed Smith, a tireless promoter of spending for veterans, to save money. But two days earlier, the same leaders pulled every string during a closed-door caucus to defeat reforms against pork barrel spending. Those disparate moves are united by a common purpose of making decisions from the top down. Smith was a committee chairman who did not take orders. The defeated spending reforms came from conservatives outside the leadership.
Obsession with centralizing authority by the leadership does not precisely fit the pattern set by Democrats during 40 years of ruling the House. But the new majority party resembles the old one in this sense: having long been in power, they act as though they are sure they will keep it forever. That attitude manifested itself in determination to get rid of Chris Smith.
Smith is derided by the leadership as a "liberal" who is in organized labor's pocket, but his voting record is moderately conservative. For 2003 (the most recent year for which evaluation is available), the American Conservative Union rated him 71 percent and his liberal rating from Americans for Democratic Action was 30 percent. Beginning his 13th term in the House, the 51-year-old Smith has been a hero in the pro-life movement and a dogged inquisitor into forced abortion in China.
The leadership's problem with Smith has been his insatiable desire to make life better for veterans during 24 years on the Veterans Affairs committee (six years as vice chairman, four years as chairman). That fits the job description set by conservative Democrat Sonny Montgomery of Mississippi during his 12-year chairmanship.