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Getting the House in Order

Michael J. Ring

American politicians have not always been the wisest, the most benevolent, or the most caring lot, but the 105th Congress set new lows in idiocy and spitefulness.

As that sorry body expires this week and the 106th Congress convenes in Washington, Americans can only hope that the leadership of this Congress will be more sensible and tolerant than the extremists of the last. As House Republicans hold a majority of only six, the need for conciliation and cooperation is high and the potential for gridlock frighteningly real.

Unfortunately, the Speaker's chair is surrounded by a power vacuum, a vortex which in the past two months alone has destroyed a speaker and a would-be speaker. The House is left in chaos, and a review of the circumstances surrounding the ousters of Newt Gingrich and Robert Livingston offer little hope that a bipartisan resolution will be reached quickly.

After masterminding the Republican Revolution of 1994, Gingrich proved his skill at winning elections. But he was a better campaigner than governor, and his tenure was marred by partisan rancor and turmoil. The Georgia Republican took the fall for the Democratic congressional gains in the midterm election.

Interestingly, Gingrich's resignation was not prompted by the complaints of Democrats or moderate Republicans. It was a revolt among the Bible-thumping firebrands of the extreme right that sealed Gingrich's fate. Immediately after an election in which the American people told conservatives they were banging their drum too loudly, the right sought to up the volume. The American people had tired of the conservative crusade, yet the extremists in Congress sought to knight a new leader.

Emerging from the dust was Robert Livingston, an affable Louisiana Republican with a conservative voting record but without Gingrich's acerbic personality. Livingston appeared to be a candidate who could unite the House after the tumultuous Gingrich tenure.

Last month, Livingston admitted to an affair. At the time of admission, he still intended to seek the speaker's post. On the morning of Clinton's impeachment, however, Livingston withdrew from the speaker's race and announced he would resign his seat in Congress.

Livingston's resignation was denounced by politicians left and right, who called for an end to "the politics of personal destruction." But Livingston resigned for a reason, and word in Washington is he wished to spare himself embarrassment from having other sexual misdeeds revealed. And despite all the criticism of Larry Flynt for threatening to embarrass Republicans for such conduct, the head of Livingston is not his trophy. Rather, whispers in the capital say it is again the extremist backbenchers who toppled Livingston. Unwilling to be led by a man who admitted to sexual indiscretion, the Republican right torpedoed an able candidate who could not pass their strict test of sexual purity.

So as Congress convenes this week, the man inheriting the gavel from Gingrich will be Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert. Like Livingston, Hastert has a conservative voting record but a willingness to work with both sides of the aisle. If he is able to acquire any real power, he will be an able speaker.

But where does the real power lie? It is not in the Speaker's office, where two bodies have been buried in as many months. Nor is it in the office of Majority Leader Richard Armey of Texas, who faced a bruising challenge to retain his post. The only Republican leader to emerge strengthened from this whole debacle is the archconservative Majority Whip, Tom DeLay of Texas.

DeLay has been the puppetmaster running the House since Gingrich's resignation. The power behind the partisan impeachment battle, the Texan has filled the vacuum created by Gingrich's departure. Dubbed "The Hammer" by many in the press, DeLay is ruthless in cajoling wavering Republicans to adhere to the party line.

DeLay's voting record is hypocritical and dangerous. At the same time he finds censorship of speech in campaign-finance reform efforts, he has sought to censor the Internet by supporting the Communications Decency Act, and has rallied Republicans behind the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Texas Republican has also been a leading voice in forcing prayer into public schools and denying employment protection to homosexuals, all in the name of "family values." The majority whip has openly welcomed the support of the religious right, and is probably the most vocal and ardent supporter of the movement among the House Republican leadership.

The events of the past few months are not the first time DeLay has tried to dictate the speaker's office from behind the scenes. He was a leader in the failed coup against Gingrich in the wake of the Speaker's ethics problems. DeLay has spent a good portion of his tenure meddling in the Speaker's office, and his fingerprints are all over the events which have recently transpired.

One hopes the sensible, affable Hastert will leash DeLay and work to restore a sense of bipartisan cooperation to a badly divided House. Unfortunately, the reverse is more likely the case. DeLay is crafty, cunning, persuasive, and revered as a hero of the extremist right. Unless Hastert can muster enough courage and power to challenge this firebrand, the Majority Whip will probably continue to be the Puppetmaster of the House.