Insight

I have decided that I should open a one-room schoolhouse. In my little schoolhouse, I will have a desk, a lectern, an old-fashioned chalkboard and a pointer. There will be an American flag in the corner of the classroom. In neat little rows in front of my desk will be desks for my pupils – little wooden desks with inkwells. And the desks will be hinged so that my pupils can store their school supplies inside. The little wooden chairs for my pupils will be attached to the little wooden desks, forming little wooden units that my pupils will have to slide into from the side.

And into the little desk units in my one-room schoolhouse, I will put the entirety of the
Washington press corps, minus the tiny number of its members who already have mastered the subject matter that I will teach.

And I will commence the lesson: “Republicans for Beginners.”

I also probably am going to need a lot of dunce caps.

It actually has been rather entertaining to watch reporters scramble to make nice with Republican congressmen and staffers they have ignored with impunity for years. Americans need to understand that it’s not just Congress that is in transition. It’s also much of the press that covers Congress.

Guys who thought their first name was “Chairman,” such as Chairman Dingell (of the House Energy and Commerce Committee) and Chairman Gonzalez (of the House Banking Committee) now are going to have to get used to the idea that they’re another minority John or Henry.

Jim Leach has been the ranking Republican on the House Banking Committee, and he will take over as chairman. You may recall the scenes from the committee’s farcical Whitewater hearings, during which Gonzalez verbally slapped him around. For example, Leach protested the two-minute rule for questioning witnesses, in which each member of the committee – Democrat, then Republican, until you run out of Republicans, at which point it’s Democrat after Democrat after Democrat – got two whole minutes to ask questions and hear answers from a witness.

A sample:

GOP congressman: “In your previous testimony, did you tell Congress about all the contacts between the Treasury Department and the White House pertaining to the criminal referral that mentioned the president and first lady?”

Administration witness: “To fully understand the context, congressman, it is necessary to review the broad panoply of instances in which individuals are asked for information by elected representatives. In the fifth century B.C., the Athenian assembly…”

Chairman: “The gentleman’s time has expired.” (Bangs gavel on table.)

Ranking minority member: “I would respectfully ask the chairman that these hearings be structured to allow us to develop a coherent line of questioning for each witness.”

Chairman: “Regular order!” (Bangs gavel on ranking minority member.)

Now, it happens that Leach got so upset at the way the majority was frustrating what he took to be his legitimate oversight efforts that he filed suit in federal court. He argued that as ranking minority member of a committee set up by Congress, which is constitutionally empowered to conduct oversight on the actions of the executive branch, he was being improperly deprived of the tools he needed to perform that function.

Documents Leach requested from the executive branch – the kinds of documents that, under Republican administrations, routinely were sent to any member of Congress who requested them – now were withheld from him. In at least one instance, Gonzalez even had written to an executive-branch official telling him not to send documents to Leach in the absence of a formal request from a majority of the committee.

Here’s my favorite part of the story, at least these days: The federal court sent Leach packing. Being ranking minority member of a committee bestows no special status. Oversight authority belongs to Congress, and such bodies as Congress shall devise to conduct oversight, not to any particular congressman.

In other words, Mr. Ex-Chairman Gonzalez – oh, what the heck, call him Henry; what’s he going to do about it? – you’re just another guy who used to have a gavel.

And now, all the reporters who have been kissing up to Gonzalez and Dingell for years are going to have to:

A) Learn to recognize Chairman Leach and Chairman Bliley by sight.

Scene: The 103rd Congress. Reporter 1: “Hey, that guy over there, the one in the rumpled sweater, who is that?” Democratic staffer: “Oh, he’s nobody, he’s ranking on the banking committee. Congressman Slug or Worm or Leech or something.”

Scene: Opening day, 104th Congress. Reporter 1: “[Cough, cough] Hey, who’s that guy smoking a pipe over there? He can’t smoke in here.” Republican staffer: “That’s Chairman Bliley, bub. Have a Garcia y Vega.”

And then the reporters are going to have to:

B) Pucker up.

Scene: Press conference of the chairman of the House Banking Committee, 104th Congress. Reporter 1: “So, you’re a Republican. What’s that like?” Reporter 2: “How do you spell ‘Whitewater’?” Reporter 3: “Nice sweater, Mr. Chairman!”

Yes, I believe I shall make the press corps in my one-room schoolhouse begin each day’s lesson in “Republicans for Beginners” with the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, perhaps, a short prayer.