“The speaker always takes the word of a member.” Sam Rayburn said that, and surely this was the key to his enormous success as speaker of the U.S. House from 1940 to 1961 with a couple of interludes that brought Republicans to the fore in Congress. Sam Rayburn understood the art of human relations. So well attended were his backroom booze sessions, called the “Board of Education,” in out-of-the-way offices of the Capitol that this is where Harry Truman was found on the day that Franklin Roosevelt died and summoned to the White House to hear the news that he now was president of the United States.
Rayburn had one thing going for him that the new speaker, Nancy Pelosi, will not. Members of Congress lived in Washington. They socialized with each other, drove car pools together, and showed up at the same school football games. This meant they were much less likely to hurl insults across the aisle than they are today when many never move their families to Washington. Instead they spend long weekends in their home districts and fly back to the nation’s capital for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. They barely know each other.
The primary reason, I suspect, is the cost of housing, coupled with the ease and economy of travel by air. Some like it this way. They believe that the current situation keeps elected representatives in touch with their constituents. Of course, that’s a plus, but not at the expense of rapport and productivity in the halls of Congress.
Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, her counterpart in the Senate, would do well to consider legislation providing a housing allowance to members, or some government-owned apartment buildings where they and their families could live for most of the week in Washington. The creation of community that then could occur would be well worth the investment.
Some say that Nancy Pelosi has stumbled at the starting gate, that she made a big mistake supporting John Murtha over Steny Hoyer for House majority leader. I don’t think so. Her compatriots in the party understood her loyalty to Murtha who had been helpful to her in the past. My guess is Hoyer understood it too. This is no lasting feud. One thing she did that was unassailable was declare even before the election that she would not pursue impeachment of the president. Whatever you think of George W. Bush and his policies, he has not committed an impeachable offense. Neither, in my opinion, did Bill Clinton.
The main hazard facing the nation with Nancy Pelosi in charge of the House is trade. When Congress postponed a vote on granting permanent normal trade relations to Vietnam in mid-November, that did not bode well for this agreement or for other trade accords in the works with Peru, Colombia or South Vietnam. Trade promotion authority, which permits the administration to negotiate deals that then must be voted up or down by Congress without amendment comes up for renewal next June. It passed the House in 2002 by three votes, with affirmation from only 27 Democrats. The Central America Free Trade Agreement was approved in the House last July by two votes, with 15 Democrats in favor. Nancy Pelosi did not support either one of them. She needs to rethink this issue and resist pressure from labor unions and other protectionists now exerting considerable influence on her party.
But it’s well to remember the saying of another speaker, Uncle Joe Cannon, who served in that office a hundred years ago: “I’ve seen it all,” he said. “Rain don’t always follow the thunder.” As a free trader, I hope in this case he’s right.