Roaring of the Toothless Lions

Commentary by Pete du Pont

If the Democrats should regain control of the House of Representatives in November - which is at least within the realm of possibility - its leadership would be arguably the most liberal in the nation's history. Not necessarily the followership, though. And that very fact might ensure that the 105th Congress accomplished little - which could be the best thing that could happen for the general welfare, given the circumstances.

Most initiatives during the 104th Congress came from the Republican-dominated House, and the same could be expected of a Democrat-dominated House in the 105th Congress.

Most of the high-profile senior Democrats in the leadership would be liberals like John Dingell and John Conyers of Michigan, Charles Rangel of New York, David Obey of Wisconsin, and George Miller, Ron Dellums and Henry Waxman of California.

If their party does capture the House, they may pay lip service to Families First, the Democrats' answer to the Republicans' Contract with America. But as Obey put it in an interview with David Broder of the Washington Post, "I think there are some broader issues the country has to be looking at if we are really going to help workers and their families." (Translation: We want to spend more money.) And more than one prospective Democratic committee chairman has said he doubts that the spending he wants will be compatible with the balanced budget for 2002 called for in Families First.

So what kind of legislation can we expect if there's a Democratic House?

Not tax reform. Rangel, who would take the chair Dan Rostenkowski used to have at Ways and Means, says he doesn't like a flat tax or consumption tax because they benefit upper-income taxpayers. Besides, he adds, we already have "the best income tax collection system that's known in the world."

Not regulatory reform. Instead, Dingell, who will be a bigger bully than ever if he takes over Commerce again, says he wants to increase government regulation of business and will try to wipe out the Republican-passed caps on awards in civil damage suits. He also wants to give more power to the Food and Drug Administration. Miller, the likely chairman of the Resources Committee, has made it clear that he wants more environmental regulations, not fewer.

And certainly not emphasis on national defense. Obey wants to drop at least two major weapons systems. Miller thinks we should use defense money on some of his favorite programs instead of preparing to fight two wars at the same time. And Dellums, likely to head the National Security Committee, opposes any missile defense system.

It's clear that the liberal leaders think they will need to spend a lot of money on something, although it isn't clear exactly what, other than something that will be controlled by the federal government. They do expect to have to help states provide public jobs and job training for all the people they assume are going to be thrown off welfare by the states under the new welfare reform law.

Dingell can be counted on to introduce a nationalized health care bill, something his father, a New Deal-era congressman, tried unsuccessfully to promote. Rangel, whose committee would oversee Medicare and Social Security, is against private-sector involvement in Medicare, so he opposes Medical Savings Accounts for Medicare and other reforms that would give Medicare recipients more individual control of how their health care dollars are spent.

But even if Democrats, led by these extreme liberals, have a majority in the House in the next Congress - or even in both the House and Senate - and even if President Clinton is re-elected, the most that is likely to happen is that some of the Families First agenda will make it into law. The reason is that the liberals may have the leadership, but they won't have the votes. And even if they did, there wouldn't be enough votes in the Senate to cut off a filibuster. That was true in the 103rd Congress, where Democrats had a solid majority in both chambers and also held the White House, and it will be even more true in the 105th Congress.

Besides, if Dick Gephardt is Speaker of the House, his best hope of a shot at Al Gore for the presidency lies in being able to hold members of his party to the Families First agenda he and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle crafted together.