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When being in the minority suddenly looks good

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.)
Greg Nash
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) leaves the Capitol following the last votes of the day on Thursday, September 29, 2022.

On what were supposed to be dark days for Democrats, losing control of the House, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) seemed content, observing the Republican clownshow as they attempted to elect a Speaker. The Democratic leader also looked across the aisle and saw a half dozen Republican seats that Democrats could have won.

If the New York Democrat ever becomes Speaker, he may be glad they didn’t.

The Republican fringe figures are nihilists more into destroying than governing. They assure disruptive chaos not just this first week of the new Congress, but for the next two years with Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) a compromised and impotent Speaker.

That’s a certainty, which makes it more interesting to see how Jeffries will navigate the circus. Leading opposition to the clownish GOP majority affords him a real opportunity.

If the Democrats had won those additional six seats, Jeffries would have had a nightmare running a caucus with only a one- or two-seat margin, albeit one less unhinged than the Republicans.

As impressive as Jeffries’ resume and rapid ascension — unanimously elected Democratic leader after only five terms — Speaker of the House is not a place for on-the-job training. Every Democratic Speaker from Sam Rayburn through Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) first served as top deputy; Pelosi also had four years as minority leader.

Replacing a legend is always daunting, whether it was first President George Washington, or John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach. The benchmark for evaluating any Speaker now will be Pelosi, whom the Los Angeles Times columnist Jackie Calmes called the GOAT — as in, “the greatest of all time.”

The qualities to be an effective Speaker are far more complex than being a good legislator; it’s a huge leap. Speakers need to be policy conversant but not a policy wonk. That was Republican Paul Ryan’s problem, who — even before being driven away by his contentious dealings with President Trump — lacked the feel and instincts to deal with a diverse rank and file, most of whom think they’re a big deal. He was much better suited as chairman of the House Ways Means & Committee.

David Price, the North Carolina congressman and congressional scholar who just retired, notes there invariably are conflicting priorities in the institution that have to be calibrated.

The Speaker has to convey a sense of discipline, especially with slim margins and political polarization. That is no easy task. “Compared to a parliamentary system, our rules of discipline are very weak,” said Price. Pelosi exercised considerable power through dint of relentless persuasion, a forceful persona, and knowing the former Nancy D’Alessandro won’t forget. Tom Foley, the Democratic speaker three decades earlier, was a brilliant legislator, but members didn’t fear crossing him. McCarthy can’t even strike fear into the likes of Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

At the same time, shepherding several hundred rank and file requires inclusiveness, enlisting members. That creates respect and loyalty.

A recurring debate is how much power is vested in the House legislative committees. In the late 19th century another congressional scholar, Woodrow Wilson, declared that “Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.” That seems quaint today.

Price notes for the next Democratic speaker, whether in two years or later, this will be a central issue: “The committees have been scaled back, and that has to be dealt with.” Some of the right-wing Republican demands last week have merit, but overall would lead to legislative anarchy.

Jeffries, the 52-year-old Brooklyn congressman, is the first Black person to lead his party in the House. He’s a mainstream liberal with a special interest in criminal justice reform; he was praised for his legal skills as one of the House managers in the first Trump impeachment.

It should be easy to lead opposition to a Republican gang that can’t shoot straight, uniting even the small cadre of left-wingers who aren’t Jeffries fans. A bigger challenge will be countering the endless investigations, like the Pelosi-led Democrats did during earlier Republicans assaults.

The GOP’s House Oversight Committee will launch political inquests with special interest in the president’s son, Hunter, with the real target being the president himself. The lead Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), normally would run circles around Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.), but Raskin now is battling cancer in the months ahead.

The Judiciary Committee will be headed by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a ruthless and unprincipled right-winger who will assault the Justice Department, the FBI and any other institution that incurred Donald Trump’s ire. There are concerns whether veteran Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on Judiciary, can take on Jordan, especially with the departure of top staffers.

Like Pelosi, Jeffries has to make sure his party is prepared for these assaults.

This pathetic House majority is bad for the country, conceivably even dangerous, with must-pass measures like extending the debt ceiling already promising to be difficult. But without the responsibility to produce results, Jeffries has a chance to feel his way as a party leader, deepen alliances, soften some skeptics, while being able to ask, “What would Nancy do?”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags congressional gridlock David Price Democratic House leaders discipline Donald Trump GOP House majority Hakeem Jeffries Hakeem Jeffries House Democratic Caucus House Democratic leadership House Democrats House Speaker Nancy Pelosi House speaker vote house speakership vote James Comer Jamie Raskin Jerrold Nadler Jerry Nadler Jim Jordan Kevin McCarthy MAGA Republicans Matt Gaetz Nancy Pelosi partisan gridlock Paul Ryan political polarization Republican House Majority Republican leaders Republican leadership Speaker election Speaker of the House race Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Speakership Tom Foley

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