House Republican leaders moved swiftly last week to tighten and centralize control of the new Congress by replacing uncooperative committee chairmen and changing the chamber's rules to deter ethics investigations of leaders.
The Republicans expanded their majority by only three seats in the Nov. 2 election, yet party leaders have been emboldened by GOP domination of all branches of government and appear determined to squelch dissent in their own ranks and to freeze Democrats out of key decisions.
Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., moved to force out the ethics committee chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who supported three formal admonishments of Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, last year, and ousted the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee for failing to toe the party line on spending. The GOP leaders also rammed through a change in House rules to make it more difficult to file an ethics complaint against DeLay or other members.
And the Republicans already had made other changes, both large and small, to diminish the influence of Democratic lawmakers. For instance, Republicans have made it harder for Democrats to offer amendments to pending bills or participate in conference committees, where House and Senate versions of bills are reconciled. Democrats also complain that Republicans have made it harder for voters to reach Democratic committee Web sites.
Democrats and some Republicans, troubled by the moves, cite parallels between today's Republicans and the Democrats who lost their 40-year hold on the House in 1994 after soon-to-be-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and other conservatives campaigned against them as autocratic and corrupt, and gained 52 seats.
Julian Zelizer, Boston University history professor who edited the 2004 anthology The American Congress, said Republicans used the past week to "accelerate the trend toward strong, centralized parties."
"This is a move toward empowering the leadership even beyond what you saw in the 1970s and 1980s," Zelizer said. "They have been going for broke."
Republican lawmakers acknowledge that they are acting partly out of Darwinian necessity. With a narrow 232 to 201 margin over Democrats, and a historical tendency for the party holding the White House to lose seats in midterm elections, the Republicans say they cannot afford defections or internal dissension.
While Republicans contend they are just enjoying the spoils of a big election, and trying to consolidate and preserve power while they can, Democrats see a chamber that looks even more polarized than it was last year during the bitterly fought election.
The Republicans' first piece of business upon returning to the Capitol was to approve a new set of operating rules, including one that would curtail future ethics investigations. Under the change, a vote from at least one member of each party would be required before an inquiry could begin. The committee is evenly divided between the two parties, and Under the old rules, a deadlock meant an investigation began automatically. Now it will take the affirmative vote of at least one Republican to launch an investigation.
Under pressure from some GOP lawmakers who feared their leaders were going too far, the House backed away from another provision that would have made it even more difficult to discipline lawmakers for unethical behavior, and rescinded another measure approved last November that would have allowed DeLay to continue as majority leader even if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury investigating political fundraising.
But in apparent retribution for the admonitions of DeLay, Hastert has begun looking for a replacement for Hefley, who was viewed as too independent. Republicans assert that the change is occurring only because, according to the House parliamentarian, Hefley has served the maximum number of terms on the committee that rules allow.
House leaders also replaced Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Christopher Smith, R-N.J., who was beloved by veterans and did not hold down spending the way leaders wanted. The new chairman is Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., who convinced party leaders during a rigorous job interview that he would be tougher.
Late last week, the leadership picked veteran Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., as the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Lewis' first action was to oust staff director James Dyer, a 10-year veteran of the committee who was a frequent target of conservative critics. Hastert also added a seat to the Republican side of the committee, increasing his party's margin over Democrats from seven to eight.
"There is a purge going on around here," said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Critics say Republicans are taking a risk by further alienating Democrats, because President Bush may need a few Democrats to vote for his agenda items _ most notably, an overhaul of Social Security _ to give political cover to the GOP.
"They say they want bipartisanship," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who is likely to become the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I think they need it. But there is no room for it when they run a political and legislative strategy that is abhorrent to bipartisanship, then bemoan the lack of civility."
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., poked fun at the Republicans by handing out two pages of quotes from today's leaders railing against the arrogance of Democratic leaders before the GOP won control in 1994. "Republicans Backtrack on Ethics Principles from the 1980s and 1990s," blared his headline.
Defending his fellow Republicans, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., said members of the public understand due process and the presumption of innocence and so will approve of last week's ethics rule change. He said that rather than autocracy, the tone that was being set was "strong leadership."
"We are a stronger party today than we were at the first of the week, because we have so successfully worked through these things," he said.
Republican Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, said her party had showed "a strong voice" in the opening week of the 109th Congress. Asked about whether ethics would linger as an issue, she said, "I think we did a good job of putting all that to bed."