At this month's Democratic National Convention, White House staffers, politicians and pundits toured the set of "The West Wing," mixing with cast members and marveling at the verisimilitude of the Oval Office and other sets. Fantasy and reality joined together in another form of "reality TV," which of course is all the rage these days. From CBS' "Survivor" to "Big Brother," networks are trying to find innovative ways to grab public attention.
Brace yourselves. We may soon have true reality TV on C-SPAN and CNN. The reality is looming in the U.S. House of Representatives, and to mix television metaphors, the drama and interest may rival (and parallel) HBO's "The Sopranos."
Consider: Control of the House is hanging by a thread. Currently, it has its smallest partisan margin in 46 years. If but six seats out of 435 switch to the Democrats in November, the leadership initiative would shift from Republican right-wing pit bull Tom DeLay to Democratic left-wing Rottweiler David Bonior, about as great a contrast as one could imagine. All the chairmanships would change hands as well, with bedrock conservatives like Henry Hyde (Judiciary) and Dan Burton (Government Reform and Investigations) making way for the likes of fiery liberals John Conyers and Henry Waxman. The agenda would change from tax cuts and abortion bans to health spending and gun control. The investigations would shift from the Clinton administration to the tobacco, oil and pharmaceutical industries.
The stakes are unbelievably high--and the likely outcome is as close as it could be. Of the 435 seats at stake, only about 30 or 35 are genuinely up in the air. Republicans are at a disadvantage in the toss-up seats, as they hold about 10 more than the Democrats, leaving the GOP vulnerable to losses. Today's best guess is that Democrats will pick up between three and 10 seats. So there is a chance that the partisan margin for the next Congress will be one or two seats either way.
Now imagine what happens if we wake up on the morning after election day and one seat determines whether DeLay, Hyde and Burton decide the nation's legislative agenda, or whether the key decisions are made by Bonior, Conyers and Waxman.
Then the real intrigue kicks in. Republican leaders would make a beeline for more conservative Democrats like Ralph Hall of Texas and Gary Condit of California. Democrats would go after moderate Republicans like Marge Roukema of New Jersey and Connie Morella of Maryland. The inducements to switch might range from committee chairmanships to leadership posts to guarantees of generous campaign funding.
Next would come overtures to the members who already switched parties--Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who left the Democrats for the GOP several years ago, and Michael Forbes of New York, who made the reverse journey earlier this year--to try to lure them back. The negotiations would quickly descend into a bidding war, with parties simultaneously trying to win over the other guys and keep their own. One side might win enough one day to declare victory and then lose enough the next to be relegated to at least temporary minority status.
That would be enough to make a political "reality TV" show to rival "Survivor" or "Big Brother." Now comes the twist to trump: "The Sopranos." One member of Congress has already openly declared that he is up for bids: Democrat James Traficant Jr. of Youngstown, Ohio. Most C-SPAN watchers know him as the polyester-clad House floor habitue who rails each day against enemies real and imagined, ending his tirade with, "Beam me up, Mr. Speaker!"
Political junkies know that he is more than that. First, he is street smart, tough and often underestimated. But that's not the real story. Traficant, a former sheriff, was indicted in 1983 for taking more than $100,000 in bribes from mob figures. The FBI had amassed a mound of evidence against him, including vivid and graphic audiotapes. Though not a lawyer, Traficant insisted on defending himself. He claimed that he was running his own sting operation and lied to the FBI because he didn't trust them. A Youngstown jury acquitted him. The next year, he won a seat in Congress, which he has held since. Recently, he announced his belief that he was on the verge of being indicted again, apparently on bribery and corruption charges, and told Democrats in Congress that if they didn't protect him, he would consider switching parties or at least voting with the Republicans for speaker and majority control.
In a detailed account in the New Republic last month of mob influence in Youngstown, David Grann writes about Traficant and his relationships with organized crime figures. That hasn't stopped congressional Republicans from using lavish praise and other lures to bring Traficant over to their team. GOP Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio recently said of Traficant, "There isn't a finer man, there isn't a finer member of Congress, there isn't a finer human being."
Imagine the scene next January: a nation wondering if the balance of power in the House might wind up in the hands of a congressional equivalent of one of Tony Soprano's associates, with each party offering escalating inducements to win his vote.
Even "Sopranos" creator David Chase would not have dreamed of that plot line.