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Democratic `old bulls' to take charge

New committee heads have seen the feudal days of vendettas and pet causes. Can they adjust to new demands?

November 26, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Rep. John D. Dingell was new to Congress, Buddy Holly ruled the charts, Rosa Parks refused to budge from her seat on a segregated bus and Dwight D. Eisenhower occupied the White House.

And on Capitol Hill, congressional committee chairmen ruled like feudal lords over federal policy, pursuing pet causes and waging vendettas with near impunity.

In time, Dingell became one of the most fearsome.

Now Dingell, the longest-serving member of the House, and other veteran Democrats are poised to take charge of the most powerful committees when Congress convenes in January.

In the four decades that Democrats were the dominant party, chairmen's foibles, however egregious, did not threaten the party's grip on power. But with narrower margins of control and an electorate willing to switch allegiances, there is no such assumption these days.

The question now is whether the "old bulls" like Dingell know it, and if they know it, whether they can adjust.

"This majority is not the kind of majority that we used to have, and it remains to be seen whether they understand that," said one senior Democratic staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Building an empire

For 14 years, Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, presided over the Energy and Commerce Committee. Under his forceful and often uncompromising leadership, the panel expanded into an empire that famously claimed jurisdiction over "everything that moves, burns or is sold" in the United States.

It was in part because of the reputation of longtime chairmen like Dingell that former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the Republican insurgency that took control of Congress in 1995, imposed term limits for committee chairs, restricting them to three consecutive two-year terms.

But the Democrats have kept the tradition of assigning committee chairmanships by seniority. And that will elevate some of the most veteran -- and oldest -- members of Congress to committee leadership posts.

All but one of the new Senate chairmen are at least 60, and three are in their 80s. Three also have served for more than four decades.

The oldest is Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who is 89 and is about to retake the helm of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He sometimes tires, aides say, but he still has full command of his senses and the respect of his peers.

It is in the House, however, where the phenomenon has attracted more attention. That's partly because Democrats have been shut out of power for 12 years, while their Senate colleagues have been in the minority for just four. And it's partly because of the irascible personalities of some of the incoming chairmen, known collectively as the "old bulls."

The three best-known are Dingell, Rep. John Conyers Jr. from a neighboring district in Michigan, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York. They are 80, 77, and 76 years old, respectively.

No green bananas

About two-thirds of the incoming House chairmen are older than 60.

"I don't buy green bananas," Rangel quipped recently, referring to his age.

Conyers, who served on the panels that considered the impeachment of Presidents Nixon and Clinton and who has mused about the possibility of impeaching the current president, is expected to take the helm of the Judiciary Committee.

Rangel, one of the most outspoken members of Congress, is set to lead the Ways and Means Committee, which sets tax policy.

On Capitol Hill, staffers trade stories about the old bulls and their infirmities, shaking their heads over Dingell's hearing problems or Conyers' "senior moments." But the same staffers insist that the incoming chairmen are not only capable of taking the reins, but of handling them better than anyone else.

"There is a lot to the concept of seniority," said Jeremy Mayer, who studies Congress at George Mason University in Virginia.

"Should the people who have been in Congress the longest have the most power? The simple answer is yes, because they have more experience and they can't be steamrolled by the administration. Dingell, for instance, knows all the intricacies of the funding of at least seven federal agencies."

Another argument in favor of seniority is that it limits intraparty fighting.

The party leadership elections this month illustrated how divisive competition for leadership posts can be. A rigid, impersonal system for naming chairmen is one way to keep the peace.

"Seniority has always been a way to prevent bloodshed," Mayer said.

The downside is that it can foster autocratic behavior. In the past, Democratic leaders found the chairmen hard to control, in part because their positions did not depend on the party, and the chairmen tended to outlast the leadership.

Steven Smith, a social sciences professor who studies government and political parties at Washington University in St. Louis, says political parties have evolved since then.

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