The House That Roared
In Ways and Means Brawl, Names, Police and Sergeant at Arms Are Called
By Juliet Eilperin and Albert B. Crenshaw
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 19, 2003; Page A01
It started with the mind-numbing reading of a 200-page pension overhaul bill, erupted into a remarkably bitter name-calling match between House Republicans and Democrats, and ended with a GOP lawmaker summoning Capitol Police to evict an outraged gaggle of Democratic colleagues from a congressional library.
Ultimately, nobody was assaulted or arrested. But the brouhaha that exploded yesterday morning in the Ways and Means Committee marked the most bitterly partisan spat thus far in the 108th Congress, a place already known for unusually angry relations between the Republican majority and the Democratic minority, especially in the House.
The Longworth building showdown lasted less than an hour. But the aftershocks dominated the entire day on Capitol Hill, where House members suspended regular business to blast each other on the House floor.
"This is simple, serious and sad," said Ways and Means member Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), adding that both parties made mistakes that were "destructive to the body."
The morning began routinely enough. The 41-member Ways and Means Committee convened in 1100 Longworth to consider a bipartisan bill that would revise the nation's pension and retirement-saving system.
Democrats objected when the panel's acerbic chairman, Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), brought up a 90-page substitute measure that had been released shortly before midnight the night before. Democrats said they needed more time to read it. Thomas disagreed.
In response, Democrats objected to a normally perfunctory motion to dispense with the reading of the dense legislation. A clerk obligingly began reading it line by line, pausing only when Thomas interrupted to announce: "In the House, the minority can delay. They cannot deny."
As the reading resumed, the Democrats departed to a library just off the main hearing room, leaving only Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.) to prevent the Republicans from obtaining unanimous consent to skip the reading. After a few minutes, Thomas asked again for the unanimous consent, and instantly brought down his gavel. Stark told reporters he had objected, but Thomas had replied, "You're too late."
Even before Thomas gaveled the reading to an end, he had dispatched the Capitol Police to remove the Democrats from the ornate library. Two officers arrived and, realizing they wanted no part of arresting House members for milling in a library, called a watch commander.
The commander gently assured the Democrats -- by now playing to the news cameras and loudly demanding to know whether they were under arrest -- that no one would be handcuffed or evicted. In fact, the three officers decided, this was a matter for the House Sergeant at Arms, not the police.
A Sergeant at Arms official soon settled the matter: No security officers would take action in "a committee matter," he announced. The Democrats, realizing they had played the scene for all it was worth, departed for the House chamber, where their contretemps resumed.
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), said the dispute was more about process than policy. "That's what this controversy is all about," he said. "They unilaterally pass bills" with little or no Democratic input.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution protesting the GOP's behavior, triggering an afternoon-long debate in which each side accused the other of debasing Congress. Democrats charged that Republicans were running "a police state," with Pelosi saying her colleagues had suffered "an indignity no member should be expected to endure."
Republicans recounted indignities of their own: When Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) had told Stark to "shut up" during the committee meeting, Stark denounced him as "a little wimp. Come on, come over here and make me, I dare you. . . . You little fruitcake. You little fruitcake. I said you are a fruitcake."
Democrats said the GOP simply wanted to change the subject, since Thomas had summoned the police before Stark lit into McInnis. Thomas neither answered reporters' questions nor appeared on the House floor yesterday, letting Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) counter Democratic charges.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) tried, but failed, to broker a compromise. The House voted 170 to 143 to reject Pelosi's motion.
Ironically, many Democrats support the bill that sparked yesterday's furor. The measure would accelerate scheduled increases in various retirement contribution limits enacted in 2001. Individuals would be able to contribute $15,000 a year to a 401(k) plan and $5,000 to an IRA, beginning next year. People 50 and older could contribute more.
The bill passed the committee with no Democratic votes.
"I've been here nine years, and this is one of the saddest days we've had in the House," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "What has happened to the Democrats is shameful; it's embarrassing to our party. I'm sad for our party, and I'm sad for the House."