The House of Representatives almost turned into the Fight Club Thursday night, when Democrats ruled that a GOP motion had failed even though, when the gavel fell, the electronic score board showed it winning 215-213 along with the word FINAL. The presiding officer, Rep. Mike McNulty (D., N.Y.), actually spoke over the clerk who was trying to announce the result.
In the ensuing confusion several members changed their votes and the GOP measure to deny illegal aliens benefits such as food stamps then trailed 212-216. Boiling-mad Republicans stormed off the floor. The next day, their fury increased when they learned electronic records of the vote had disappeared from the House's voting system.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi made matters worse when she told reporters, "There was no mistake made last night." Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had to rescue her by acknowledging that, while he thought no wrongdoing had occurred, the minority party was "understandably angry." Under pressure, the House unanimously agreed to create a select committee, with subpoena powers, to investigate Republican charges the vote had been "stolen."
Congress appears to be gripped by a partisanship that borders on tribal warfare. In a forthcoming book, Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein compares it to a "second Civil War" that has led to "the virtual collapse of meaningful collaboration" between the two parties. Public disenchantment with Washington is such that now both New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Democratic former senator Sam Nunn of Georgia are musing openly about an independent run for president. But Congress itself has to act if it doesn't want to degenerate into one of those fist-wielding European or Asian parliaments we occasionally see on TV.
The breakdown has been a long time coming. In the 1980s, after almost 40 years of control, House Democrats had become arrogant and casually exercised the near-absolute power that body gives the majority. In 1985, Democrats insisted on handing a disputed Indiana House seat to the Democratic incumbent by a four-vote margin despite clear evidence that ballots had been handled in a completely arbitrary way during a special recount by a House task force. In 1987, Speaker Jim Wright held open a budget vote for an extra 10 minutes in a frantic effort to convince someone to change his vote. The maneuver prompted then-Rep. Dick Cheney to call Mr. Wright "a heavy-handed son of a bitch."
Republicans didn't act any better during the reign of Majority Leader Tom DeLay. In 2003, a massive Medicare prescription drug entitlement was passed only after a vote was held open for three hours at 3 a.m. as Mr. DeLay strong-armed reluctant GOP members into voting for it. Votes were held open at least a dozen times during the last years of the Republicans' troubled control of the House.
Democrats issued a report in early 2006 pointing out the abuses of GOP rule. None other than Newt Gingrich admitted that he thought his party was too dismissive of the rights of the minority and risked a backlash if Democrats regained control.
Indeed, that happened with stunning speed after the GOP's fall from power last November. Despite Ms. Pelosi's pledge that "we would have the most honest and open government," the new majority quickly adopted a whatever-it-takes approach to passing legislation. Last week alone, a dubious ethics bill was passed less than 24 hours after being introduced. The bill expanding health-care coverage to children was rewritten at 1 a.m., a rule harshly limiting debate was passed at 3 a.m., and the bill was sent to the floor for a final vote the same day.
The Senate operates under a different rule book that is more open to debate. But it has its own problems, such as allowing individual senators to put holds on legislation and presidential nominees without revealing that they're behind the delaying tactic. It's become a cliché that nothing passes the Senate without 60 votes. But that wasn't the case in the past. Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson dominated the Senate in the 1950s with just a one- or two-vote advantage over Republicans and routinely passed legislation by margins that close. When filibusters were real and actually required senators to stay on the floor, they were threatened and employed less frequently.
But it's the House where the elbows have become sharp as razor blades. Despite efforts by members to form a "civility caucus" to find ways to cooperate across party lines, it is increasingly apparent that the inmates of the House asylum aren't the best judges of how to better working conditions there.
Almost exactly a year ago, former speakers Thomas Foley and Newt Gingrich, a Democrat and his Republican successor, appeared at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss "How Congress Is Failing America." The two old warhorses conducted a remarkably civilized exchange and proved that with the passage of time they had clearly put aside old animosities. Mr. Foley joked that if he heard today's Newt Gingrich on the campaign stump, his reaction would be "I think I'll vote for this guy." He added in a more serious vein, "I think he's absolutely dead right in his diagnosis of what's happening to this country and to the Congress."
Both men decried a runaway spending process, the demise of bipartisan committee deliberations, and the gerrymandered districts that have led to the election of more fierce partisans and fewer centrists. Both called for an end to the earmark culture that distorts budget deliberations. The two agreed that for real change to occur, Congress needs fresh blood. However, they disagreed on the desirability of term limits, with Mr. Gingrich favoring them and Mr. Foley demurring.
Mr. Foley also made a very prescient warning. He urged his fellow Democrats not to exact retribution or respond in kind to heavy-handed GOP tactics should they win back control that November, as they ended up doing: "Democrats [should] clearly and intensely [promise] that if they take the majority back again, they will not go back and try to pay back, so to speak, what they felt were the excesses and even the outrages of this period, but will promise minority rights in reaching those minority decisions."
Clearly, his fellow Democrats in the House haven't been following his advice. Maybe they ought to appoint Messrs. Foley and Gingrich to head an outside task force to recommend ways to make the House work again. If the House had the sense to recognize it had to appoint a select committee to investigate last Friday's vote fiasco, it should see the possible benefits of having an outside group weigh in on its dysfunctional ways.
Democrats and Republicans alike have an interest in reform. Scenes like last Friday's meltdown on the House floor can only lower Congress's dismal approval ratings. With both parties held in low regard, we could be heading for a repeat of the 1990 and 1992 elections, which took place at a time of economic uncertainty and bipartisan congressional scandals involving the House bank and post office. In those years, House incumbents in both parties went down to defeat 14 in 1990 and 24 in 1992.
Incumbents loathe political uncertainty. If Democrats and Republicans don't find a way to stop the erosion of pubic confidence in their work, they could be heading into a 2008 election in which neither party has a clear advantage and voters are looking to take scalps in both their camps. This just might be one of those rare times where House members should resort to outside intervention.