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Real changes on the way in the House

Published December 17, 2006


WASHINGTON - One day last week, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi picked up the phone and asked John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader of the House, if he would like to suggest some ways they could assure better supervision of the page program, the subject of so much controversy in the scandal that led to the resignation of Rep. Mark Foley.

Another day, when the San Francisco Democrat learned that her predecessor as speaker, Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert, was unhappy about losing his spacious office suite, she quietly found two rooms near the prime space allocated to the Ways and Means Committee, and assigned them to Hastert.

Both moves were insignificant in themselves. But they signal that the management of the House is going to change substantively - not just symbolically - when Pelosi is sworn in on Jan. 4 as the first woman ever to hold the third highest office in the land.

No one can tell you all the ways the House will change. When I interviewed her, it became apparent that she was just getting into the details of her new position. That may seem odd, but I find it believable that all during her campaigning and fundraising these past two years, her focus was not on becoming speaker but, as she said, "getting the Democrats back in the majority" after 12 years out of power.

"It was not until I was nominated in the Democratic caucus for speaker that it hit me," she said.

But Pelosi has been thinking for a long time about how she would manage the House. Two years ago, she and others in the Democratic leadership sent Hastert a letter outlining changes in House rules and procedures that would end some of the flagrant abuses of the legislative process that have taken place. The letter said that Democrats would live by the same new rules if and when they were the majority.

That was repeated a year ago, and Pelosi says it stands today.

It means, among other things, an end to any congressional rides on corporate planes, a block on the revolving door between congressional staff jobs and lobbying shops, and a process that will make it harder to slip in special-interest earmarks.

It also means a radical overhaul of House rules - a strict time limit on roll calls to prevent prolonged arm-twisting of reluctant members, a requirement that conference committees work in the open and include minority party members.

After a decade of bitter partisanship that has all but crippled efforts to deal with major national problems, Pelosi is determined to try to return the House to what it was in an earlier era - "where you debated ideas and listened to each other's arguments."

That does not mean she is abandoning the Democratic agenda. Far from it. But it does mean that she has grasped the key to doing her job - "I am the speaker of the House," not the leader of the Democratic caucus.

The small gestures she has made to the Republicans suggest a willingness to accommodate, rather than a vindictive reaction to the Democratic victory.

That bodes well for the future.

David Broder's e-mail address is

[Last modified December 16, 2006, 20:10:09]

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