Arrogance on the Hill

Posted: Jan 10, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 Although Smith breached the leadership's spending limits, all his proposals went through the regular congressional procedure. That contrasts to earmarking of funds for pork barrel spending, without hearings and without authorization. The Republican leaders have made little effort to curb the worst earmarking in history, because it benefits individual lawmakers. In contrast, Smith's attempts at higher veterans spending put pressure on the very few Republican incumbents who represent competitive districts that have not been gerrymandered -- for instance, Veterans Affairs committee member Rob Simmons of Connecticut.

 Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the other members of the Steering Committee wanted to purge Smith two years ago for defying the leadership on veterans spending, but Speaker Dennis Hastert saved him. This year, the pressure was so great that he was kicked off the committee entirely. That action probably did not represent the Republicans in the House, many of whom were stunned by the purge. Several paid condolence calls to Smith -- including International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde and Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, two influential conservatives.

 The leadership's avowed new interest in spending control did not extend to favorable consideration of reforms offered by the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) under the aggressive new chairmanship of Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. The Monday conference of House Republicans spent most of its four hours debating -- and rejecting -- the RSC proposals.

 Hastert and DeLay were passionate in the closed-door session, opposing any changes intended to make it more difficult to approve pork barrel projects and establish some accountability for them. The response by the leadership that it eventually will adopt its own procedures was hardly satisfying.

 The rank-and-file rebellion restoring a rule that will require DeLay to resign as majority leader if indicted by a Texas grand jury was the only setback for the leadership. The new Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, is expected to be more attentive to the leaders than were his predecessors, whether or not he is a less open-handed spender. The fate of Chris Smith suggests Lewis will be well advised not to stray too far from what his leaders want.