WASHINGTON — The most telling image of change in Washington on Wednesday was not Newt Gingrich standing before the House with his polished new walnut gavel--it was Rep. Tom Bevill (D-Ala.) sitting in a cramped anteroom getting ready to begin his 15th term in Congress.
The spacious hearing room where Bevill had presided for 18 years over the Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development had been commandeered for a function honoring a new Republican congressman. His own private office was needed for a reception for Alabamians.
So Bevill, a senior member of what was known as Congress' "college of cardinals," retreated to quarters cramped with spare furniture. There, he made his phone calls and took care of his morning mail.
It was the beginning of a new life for Bevill, as it was for the other "cardinals," who had held the purse strings of a federal budget now standing at about $1.5 trillion.
None of the House Democrats who survived last November will find a more dramatic change than will the erstwhile chairs of the 13 Appropriations subcommittees.
They had been the lucky ones who landed prize assignments to the Appropriations panel and mounted the seniority ladder to head subcommittees. With a chairmanship, they had the power to channel federal largess to their home districts. Politically, they could make themselves nearly invincible.
Of the 13 Democratic cardinals, only one--Rep. Neal Smith of Iowa--was defeated. Rep. William Natcher of Kentucky died not long before the election, and Rep. Bob Carr of Michigan ran unsuccessfully for the Senate. All the rest returned, even in the face of the Republican rout: Reps. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, Julian C. Dixon of Los Angeles, David R. Obey of Wisconsin, Sidney R. Yates of Illinois, Vic Fazio of Sacramento, W. G. (Bill) Hefner of North Carolina, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, Louis Stokes of Ohio and Bevill.
Bevill was one of three incumbent House Democrats in the country who went unchallenged by a Republican candidate.
As well he might.
His energy and water development subcommittee--once called public works--presented an unparalleled opportunity to "take home the bacon," as the saying goes. And Bevill did.
From his subcommittee chair, he managed the funding for the $2-billion Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway, providing a shortcut across Alabama and Mississippi from the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico. And he cornered the funds for a broad new highway from Memphis to Birmingham, cutting through his north Alabama congressional district.
His effectiveness in channeling federal dollars toward Alabama has caused Bevill's critics to label him one of Washington's preeminent pork-barrelers but the folks on the receiving end have been appropriately grateful. Though he is still in office, a lock and dam on the Tennessee-Tombigbee has been named for him, as has a handsome new building on the campus of the University of Alabama.
On Wednesday, the congressman took the loss of his powerful chairmanship, as did the rest of the fallen cardinals, stoically.
Being in the minority for the first time in his 28-year congressional career is not cause for despair.
He has always gotten on well with Rep. John T. Myers (R-Ind.), who succeeds him as subcommittee chairman, he said, and he expects their amicable relationship to continue.
For a man who adored Franklin D. Roosevelt and led the support of public works projects of three Democratic administrations, Bevill was rapidly adjusting to the new reality in substantive ways.
After reviewing the rules changes that Republicans would put to a vote, he concluded that he would go along with most, if not all, of them. They were changes, he concluded, that his constituents would support.