Put a Face on Your Fears
The apprehensive citizen's guide to the new Republican committee chairmen of the U.S. Senate—and what they have in store for us
Drake Bennett and Alex Gourevitch
They had to wage a campaign in equal parts deceitful and dynamic to get there, but when Congress convenes in January, Republicans will control the Senate. The Democrats' capacity to impede the Bush agenda has been whittled down to the occasional filibuster. Their ability to inquire about the administration's most glaring lunacies is gone. Not that the Democrats were any great shakes when they ran the Senate, but now they must struggle to be anything more than indignant footnotes to a reactionary text.
The new Senate will differ from the old chiefly in that it will speed, not impede, the flow of legislation coming from the White House, and will look the other way when the administration cuts any but the most egregious deals for its friends. The unacknowledged legislator of the nation is Karl Rove, and the job of this particular legislature -- as he and his boss made very clear while prodding the lame-duck session to enact a wretched homeland-security bill -- is to implement his vision.
Still, this is the U.S. Senate, a somewhat quaint institution where power is still diffused, where a single senator can still gum up the works and where a committee chairman can still retain discretion for all manner of mis- or good deeds unless and until the White House harrumphs. Not all chairmen are created equal; in the 108th Congress convening Jan. 7, some will seek to moderate the demands of the cultural conservatives, the expatriate corporations and the administration war hawks while others will choose to outyell them.
We offer, then, a guide to the new powers in the land -- the incoming chairs of the Senate committees. We've ranked them in the order of the magnitude of the shift we're likely to see when they take the gavel from their Democratic predecessors -- which means, we're assessing those Democratic predecessors as well. Thus we start with the Environment and Public Works Committee, where the incoming chairman views punching more holes in the ozone layer as just a good day's work. We end with the Finance Committee, less because the incoming chairman is a moderate Republican than because the outgoing chairman is in reality a moderate Republican, too.
-- Harold Meyerson
1. A Planet at Risk
The Committee on Environment and Public Works:
James Jeffords (I-Vt.) to James Inhofe (R-Okla.)
The biggest and probably the most calamitous shift in committee chairmen will occur in the Environment Committee. There, greens see red when they contemplate James Inhofe, who is set to take over from James Jeffords. "When voters went to the polls they didn't vote for people who were going to weaken environmental protections, but that's what they've gotten," says Alys Campaigne, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If you look at the leadership, if you look at Inhofe, [you realize that] it's payback time for big industry." Inhofe received a rating of absolute 0 percent from the environmental League of Conservation Voters (LCV) in 1999 and 2000. (Jeffords received LCV ratings of 89 percent and 71 percent, respectively, for those two years.) Indeed, Inhofe even managed to oppose the Bush White House for being too pro-environment and was the only senator to vote against the Bush brothers' Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
Jeffords used his chair to criticize the Bush administration's environmental record and to proselytize for renewable energy, neither of which is a mission that Inhofe is inclined to undertake. The Oklahoma senator has long been a hysterical critic of the Environmental Protection Agency, likening Carol Browner, Clinton's EPA administrator, to Tokyo Rose and the agency itself to the Gestapo. He's a proponent of applying cost-benefit analyses to environmental regulation such as the Clean Air Act, and in 1997, Inhofe tried unsuccessfully to block the Clinton administration's tougher clean-air regulations. While Inhofe claims to be simply exposing the costs of environmental legislation, environmentalists such as Campaigne brand cost-benefit analyses "code for putting industry's interests first."
Tellingly, Inhofe spokesman Gary Hoitsma points out, "It's [called] the Committee on Environment and Public Works, not just environment, and the transportation bill is going to be a big priority for us." That bill sets the funding levels for the transportation bill, but it also has public-health and environmental implications; and its passage will set off debates over how much to spend on roads as opposed to public transit and how (or whether) to address the air pollution caused by automobile traffic. Look for Inhofe to come down squarely on the side of roads -- not of trains, and not of lungs.
2. Here Come the Old Testament Judges
The Committee on the Judiciary:
Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)
Orrin Hatch may demonstrate an occasional willingness to work across party lines, but as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he'll be working to implement the far right's agenda. According to spokeswoman Margarita Tapia, Hatch's top priority will be "to move the president's nominees diligently and fairly through the committee." Translation: The Judiciary Committee will rubber-stamp every right-wing ideologue Bush nominates for a judgeship. High atop this list are the ethically challenged pro-lifer Priscilla Owens and the abortion-attacking Charles Pickering. Under outgoing Chairman Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary Committee rejected Owens and Pickering the first time around, but everyone expects Bush to renominate them and Hatch to speed their names to the Senate floor. ("Sen. Hatch is supportive of both of those two nominees," says Tapia.) Rumor also has it that, with Hatch controlling the Judiciary Committee, the aging and ailing Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor may seize the day and retire from the Supreme Court.
And that's just one side of Hatch's Hall of Horrors; the campaign to submerge civil liberties is another. "Vigorous oversight of the Department of Justice is critical, and is much less likely to happen under Hatch," worries Julie Fernandes, senior policy analyst and special counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. As part of possibly the most secretive administration ever to grace this land of freedom, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and company have been chipping away at civil liberties since September 11. Ashcroft has issued a series of administrative directives, and capitalized on expanded powers from the USA Patriot Act, in an attempt to establish a nationwide dragnet so intrusive and arbitrary that it has produced a backlash even among local and state police forces across the country. On these matters, Leahy (who had a 2000 American Civil Liberties Union rating of 57 percent) was a thorn in the administration's side, holding illuminating hearings on everything from the shadowy activities of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to the first comprehensive review of the FBI in two decades, to the authoritarian implementation of the USA Patriot Act. And that's not to mention Leahy's success in derailing Ashcroft's Stasi-style TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) program.
Hatch (who enjoyed a 2000 ACLU rating of 14 percent) isn't likely to convene many civil-liberties hearings. Then there are such perennial right-wing crusades as corporate-sponsored tort reform and the ban on partial-birth abortion. At least we'll all feel safe from terrorism ... right?
3. Workers of the World, Duck!
The Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions:
Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to Judd Gregg (R-N.H.)
By common consent, Ted Kennedy has been long been Capitol Hill's most important force for worker and consumer interests. Now, he's had to surrender his gavel to a Republican who's his antithesis on nearly every issue. Incoming Chairman Judd Gregg has a 2 percent lifetime voting record on the AFL-CIO's index of worker-related issues, earned by, among other things, his votes against ergonomics standards and for restricting union political activities. Outgoing Chairman Kennedy has a 93 percent lifetime AFL-CIO record, and he scored 100 percent this year.
The biggest changes here will come on questions of labor and education, as prescription drugs and pension reform go mainly through other committees. Gregg has some actively anti-labor proposals on his docket. In a postelection press release, he announced that two of his priorities would be "to ensure that private sector employees have the same rights and freedoms that government workers have to take time off in lieu of overtime pay" and "to push for legislative and regulatory clarification of the Family and Medical Leave Act." These mean less pay for long hours and a more difficult life for workers with children. And you can plain forget about raising the minimum wage, a cause dear to Kennedy's heart. Kennedy also held numerous hearings highlighting the ongoing deficiencies in workplace safety, health insurance and medical privacy. (Indeed, Kennedy has announced that, minority status notwithstanding, he will introduce legislation requiring employers to ante up more for workers' health insurance.) Gregg is about as likely to take up these causes as he is to become a member of the International Socialists.
Gregg may also precipitate a battle over school vouchers, which he has a history of supporting. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) comes up for reauthorization this year, and the new chairman is likely to lard it with a vouchers provision. Not only would this presage things to come in the general education bill, it could well precipitate a Democratic filibuster. "If they include vouchers into the IDEA reauthorization, it's going to be a long, drawn out, bloody debate," said one Democratic Senate aide. Gregg is also likely to push for lower funding of higher-education Pell Grants, and for more scrutiny of the Head Start program, as both policies come up for reauthorization this year.
Although some have been surprised at how well such differing personalities as Gregg and Kennedy worked together, the two nevertheless have very different priorities. All of which is why the Prospect sees this as one of the biggest committee shifts in the Senate.
4. Small Investors, Smaller Clout
The Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs:
Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) to Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)
Outgoing chairman paul sarbanes has been a staunch liberal in his voting record, but until this year's Sarbanes-Oxley Act (aimed at corporate-accounting reform), he was not leading many notable offensives. For his part, incoming Chairman Richard Shelby has earned a reputation as a bit of a fair-weather populist. He expects to hold further hearings with Sarbanes on financial privacy and has called for independent-minded replacements for both former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt and William Webster, former head of the SEC's public accounting-oversight board. And because these replacements will be the featured attraction early on, Shelby may come out of the gates not far from where Sarbanes left off. He even plans hearings on whether lawmakers went too far in erasing the boundaries between commercial and investment banks. Marty Gruenberg, Sarbanes' chief of staff, notes that things could be worse, "I could paint you a horror scenario, but in all of Shelby's comments thus far, he hasn't said things that are different from Sarbanes."
But that's the problem: Shelby has been silent about the stuff on which he and Sarbanes part company. "Regulatory relief" bills "remain a possibility," says Shelby spokeswoman Andrea Andrews. Nor has Shelby piped up about defending the poor from predatory lending practices. In fact, Shelby has become more of an advocate for industry and Wall Street in recent times, earning a 93 percent rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce two years in a row after having lingered between 70 percent and 80 percent. (Sarbanes is in the 35 percent to 40 percent range.) While Shelby is no Phil Gramm (R-Texas), who chaired the Banking Committee in the 1990s with an unmatched deregulatory fanaticism, he will go to bat for the big guys.
In a climate of Republican war unity, and with conservative Republicans beside him, the Prospect predicts that Shelby's populist talk will dissolve into a pro-business walk.
5. Enrich-the-Rich Obsessive Succeeds Balanced-Budget Compulsive
The Committee on the Budget:
Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to Don Nickles (R-Okla.)
Incoming chairman Don Nickles certainly loves cutting taxes, but he has occasionally met a tax cut he didn't like. Take the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax rebate for poverty-wage workers. As Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, "Nickles has generally been one of the most severe critics of the Earned Income Tax Credit." In 1995 Nickles pushed to reduce the EITC by $66 billion over seven years, even while agitating for an upper-bracket tax cut. In other words, tax cuts are all well and good, but only if they redistribute wealth in an upward direction. It's no shock that Nickles wants to see the Bush tax cut made permanent.
Nickles loves cutting spending, too, but not quite as much. As his soon-to-be predecessor Kent Conrad points out, "The problem is that the spending cuts that he will push for are not in the areas where the big new spending is occurring: defense, homeland security." That means not only "less support for education and expansion of health-care coverage," but "bigger deficits and more debt." Nickles is still enough of a deficit hawk that he'll also push for a replacement at the helm of the Congressional Budget Office who favors the so-called dynamic scoring of budget projections, a forecasting method that hides the red ink. (For his part, Conrad tended to be a green-eyeshade Democrat, a budget balancer who wasn't crazy about fiscal stimuli or other Keynesian strategies.)
A Nickles spokeswoman shrugs off accusations that her boss will gut domestic programs. "The senator's No. 1 priority will be passing a budget, unlike this year," she says. Beyond that, no details are forthcoming. The committee under Conrad was indeed unable to pass a 2003 budget. If Nickles can do better for 2004, he'll be able to stick in reconciliation instructions -- filibuster-proof provisions that legislate policy changes in revenue and entitlement programs. Those will come in handy when it's time to grease the skids for those Republican tax and spending cuts.
6. The Sun Also Sets
The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources:
Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) to Pete Domenici (R-N.M.)
New Mexico may retain the chair of this committee, but things now look much better for the Bush-Cheney energy bill. Still, stances on energy issues align in all sorts of ways. Jeff Bingaman (outgoing) and Pete Domenici (incoming) went with their respective parties on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but on nuclear-energy issues both stay true to their roots (New Mexico being birthplace of the Atomic Age and home to the Los Alamos and Sandia national research labs). Both voted to approve the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump and to reauthorize the 1954 Price-Anderson Act, which limits the disaster liability of the nuclear-power industry. And there are legislative-executive fault lines, too, as just about everyone on the committee opposed White House plans to force deregulation on electricity markets through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
But the fact remains that Domenici is much more unequivocal than Bingaman in his support of energy production, whether by nuclear or fossil fuel, and less interested in conservation and renewable energy. Nor will he give much attention to Energy Committee member Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) Enron-inspired energy-trading reform bill. And whether or not Democrats can still block drilling in ANWR, says Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen, "The real bonanza for the oil industry is the $34 billion in tax breaks that the House passed for the energy sector for doing what it's already doing." Those may prove harder to keep out of Domenici's bill than they would out of Bingaman's.
7. Agribiz Feeling Its Oats
The Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry:
Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to Thad Cochran (R-Miss.)
One farm state stalwart hands off to another. That means, come drought or dropping crop prices, the Agriculture Committee will keep trying to make green acres the place to be. Of course, the farm bill already having been passed, the committee's responsibilities will mostly entail overseeing the law's implementation. But American farmers no doubt still count themselves lucky that Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the senior Republican on the committee, opted to take the Foreign Relations chair. Lugar, unlike both outgoing Chairman Tom Harkin and incoming Chairman Thad Cochran, voted against the 2002 Farm Bill and made no secret of his opposition to its $190 billion in farm subsidies.
Harkin and Cochran have major differences of their own, however. Harkin is more passionate about conservation and renewable energy, but more circumspect in his acceptance of genetically modified crops. But in agriculture, arguments often develop along regional as much as party lines. The cotton, rice and peanuts grown in Cochran's Mississippi tend to be more expensive and to come from larger-scale operations, which helps explain Cochran's opposition to a subsidy cap to farms, no matter how big. The cap, which Harkin and some fellow senators unsuccessfully tried to include in the farm bill, would have favored smaller farmers such as those in Harkin's Iowa.
So while Cochran and the Republicans may tinker a bit with the farm bill, they're not likely to change it much, and Cochran will most likely prove inhospitable to efforts to dilute it. Nonetheless, according to Neil Ritchie, executive director of the League of Rural Voters, "There's still the matter of appropriating the money, and each of the program lines will be considered one by one. The federal budget's not likely to improve because of the economy. There'll be pressure to cut spending."
One of Harkin's prized provisions, the Conservation Security Program, which rewards farmers for environmentally friendly farming practices, has already shriveled on the vine, as the Republican-controlled House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee downgraded it to a small pilot program.
8. A Measure of the Maverick
The Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation:
Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) to John McCain (R-Ariz.)
As in all things, John McCain is hard to classify when it comes to the issues he'll face as Commerce Committee chairman. With the head of a deregulator but a heart that goes out to the little guy, the Arizona Republican, in the words of Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, "is not just a maverick, he's also a little bit eccentric." What's more, politics tends to be especially local on the sorts of issues the Commerce Committee faces. On telecommunications regulation, for example, which will take up a good deal of the committee's time, Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was a big booster of Mississippi-based WorldCom, a company that was furiously lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to intervene on its behalf.
As of yet, McCain hasn't come out for or against the Baby Bells, and that distinction determines whether, like outgoing Chairman Fritz Hollings, he'll push FCC Chairman Michael Powell to make the Bells open up their lines to competition. Odds are he won't, but as Colin Crowell, a House Democratic staffer who specializes in telecommunications legislation points out, "One of the things to be very, very wary of is classifying a McCain chairmanship as less regulatory than a Hollings chairmanship. Though McCain voted against the 1996 telecom act, he voted for the 1992 cable act, which regulated cable rates and programming and the market access of satellite companies."
As for the Federal Trade Commission, McCain will probably be much easier on his former Hanoi Hilton roommate, FTC Commissioner Orson Swindle, and not push, as Hollings has, for more vigorous antitrust enforcement. On media conglomeration, McCain's most likely to let Powell dismantle the restrictions on a company's owning of too large a share of local media markets. But then again, he might be so peeved at the broadcasting companies for stripping free television time out of his campaign-finance bill that he'll decide to stick it to them.
9. Not Cheney's Model Chairman
The Committee on Foreign Relations:
Joseph Biden (D-Del.) to Richard Lugar (R-Ind.)
If it had been up to Vice President Dick Cheney or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, incoming Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar would have opted instead to chair the Agriculture Committee or lose himself in the Library of Congress stacks -- anything but oversee the nation's foreign policy. Lugar, says Lawrence Korb, director of national-security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, "represents the [former National Security Adviser] Brent Scowcroft strain. If I were [Secretary of State] Colin Powell, I would be thrilled to see Lugar in there."
Something of an internationalist with a passion for corralling loose nukes, Lugar is not likely to call hearings on a war in progress, but neither is he a Pentagon pushover. Bolstered by Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who had the guts to point out that the administration warmongers were a bunch of chicken hawks, Lugar is likely to convene some awkward hearings for Bush about North Korea, about the need for multilateral cooperation, and about the necessity of increasing our foreign aid to the allied and the occupied. Korb thinks Lugar might even be tougher on the right-wing ideologues than outgoing Chairman Joe Biden. "Their philosophical positions are the same," says Korb, "but Biden was handicapped because the Democrats didn't want to look soft on foreign policy. And John Kerry (D-Mass.) is a war hero, but you didn't hear him saying things like Hagel about, 'These guys don't know anything about war.'"
Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, concurs. "The change from [Jesse] Helms [R-N.C. and the last Republican to chair the Foreign Relation Committee] to Lugar is more significant than the change from Democrat to Republican. The Democrats are so bad on foreign policy that the change in the Senate doesn't mean much." Still, it's a sorry state of affairs when the best you can do is breathe a sigh of relief that Helms is gone. And don't expect Lugar to do anything more than hold some embarrassing hearings and fight for more foreign aid. Once war has begun, Republicans know how to toe the party line.
10. Republican Regular Succeeds Democratic Disaster
The Committee on Finance:
Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)
Although the committee under outgoing chairman Max Baucus was far from liberal, under incoming Chairman Chuck Grassley it will move unambiguously to the right. While Grassley has worked closely with Baucus, it was chiefly because Baucus, in recent years, has often been a Democrat in name only. Baucus led the charge of the 12 Democratic senators who crossed party lines to support President Bush's tax cut in 2001, crippling social programs for years to come while throwing a cool trillion at America's wealthiest citizens. He was the strategist and floor manager for the bill granting Bush fast-track trade authority, a measure that 90 percent of House Democrats and a majority of Senate Democrats opposed as enabling corporations to undermine worker rights, environmental standards and state sovereignty. All of which is why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Baucus a 71 percent rating this year, up from 46 percent the year before. (Grassley's rating, meanwhile, was a nifty 100 percent.)
For his part, Grassley has long since pledged to make last year's tax cut permanent. Martha Coven, senior legislative associate at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says, "Grassley will largely take his cues from the White House on taxes. But on other issues he may take the edge off what the White House and the House does." This could be especially true on Medicare, pension reform and welfare-reform reauthorization. Grassley Spokeswoman Beth Pellet says one of the senator's top priorities will be "Medicare equity in conjunction with prescription-drug benefits for seniors." As an expert on aging issues, Grassley will likely turn this into a better bill than the one that would emerge if, say, a Trent Lott were running the committee. But don't expect the kind of sweeping expansion of coverage that many Democrats (though not necessarily Baucus) would support. The pensions bill will also come before the committee, but Grassley's commitment to reform probably won't extend much beyond excising the most truly lunatic of the pro-business provisions that his right-wing colleagues will cook up. Grassley has also stated that when welfare-reform reauthorization comes up, "Work requirements need strengthening."
Grassley is less ideological than a number of his Republican colleagues, but he will be backed (or constrained) by party leaders Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell, and by an exacting party discipline.
Hang in there America, this only temporary.
Bring back the Concorde