Democrats enter brave new world with House majority in Trump era

At first the calls sounded exciting, even glamorous. “The Speaker wants you to preside over the House today.” The Speaker! How sweet the title. “Preside over the House!” Such a real honor. A solemn responsibility reserved exclusively for the party in power, it involved wielding the gavel and governing floor proceedings, with the title Speaker Pro Tempore.

After several shifts, however, it started to become a chore. I would stand at the rostrum for hours, repeating “the gentleman is recognized,” “the House will be in order,” “this will be a 15 minute vote,” and various other chamber ditties. Next to me was the House parliamentarian, whispering into my ear the answer to an arcane point of inquiry, which I would mimic with all the credibility of a wooden doll sitting on the lap of a ventriloquist.

ADVERTISEMENT

As time went one, that responsibility of standing at the rostrum became something I ducked. I have served in both the majority and the minority in the House, which is like saying, “I have been awake and asleep in my life.” As my former colleague Rahm Emanuel recently told the New York Times, serving in the minority in the House is “basically like being on TV with the mute button on. They can see you, but they cannot hear you.”

In the minority, my party was shut out of committee meetings. A notable example happened in 2006 when House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Charlie RangelCharles (Charlie) Bernard RangelHouse Democrats offer measures to censure Steve King Democrats enter brave new world with House majority in Trump era Esty seeks Ethics investigation into her own conduct MORE scrambling through the Capitol in search of a secret conference meeting being held by Republicans. When he finally found it, he was told by the committee chairman at the time, Bill Thomas, “This meeting is only open to the coalition of the willing.”

The Hastert rule, which required that a majority of the Republican majority agree to a bill before it could receive a vote, relegated Democrats not to metaphorical sidelines but to the Capitol parking lot. Our amendments were stonewalled. In the Speakers lobby spanning the House chamber, reporters crowded around the door generally used by Republicans. The door used by Democrats often resembled a quiet suburban roadway.

In 2005, I asked to attend the ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. My request was approved by the Republican majority, so long as a Republican led the delegation. I really could not have cared less whose name went on the luggage tags.

Then Democrats scored victory in the 2006 midterm elections. Almost overnight, everything changed. Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' On The Money: Shutdown Day 25 | Dems reject White House invite for talks | Leaders nix recess with no deal | McConnell blocks second House Dem funding bill | IRS workers called back for tax-filing season | Senate bucks Trump on Russia sanctions Overnight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions MORE offered me a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee. I led a congressional delegation to Afghanistan, which included then representative Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump considering recognizing opposition leader as Venezuela's president: report Democrats vow to lift ban on federal funds for abortions Could Nancy Pelosi be the next president of the United States? MORE, who was actually quite pleasant to be around. But I guess being strapped next to each other on a Blackhawk helicopter tends to be a bonding experience.

But the power held by the majority is not always as glorious as it sounds. There is the responsibility of governing. The 2018 midterm elections had created a lively brew of party moderates and progressives. Blue Dogs on the right and Democratic Socialists on the left. New Democrats and the old guard. The Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and more. A governing majority will require consensus. Consensus is often harder to achieve when it is a governing position versus a partisan talking point.

Then there are the procedural responsibilities of the majority. Once the Republicans tied up the House on whether former representative Mike McNulty, a fair and decent man, gaveled down a motion to recommit prematurely as Speaker Pro Tempore. “Shame, shame, shame,” they shouted, and an investigation began. Meanwhile, war raged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession loomed. But there was the matter of whether a vote tally on a motion to recommit was improperly recorded.

Motions to recommit are tools of the minority to force the majority to cast votes that can and will be used against them. They are like little time bombs affixed to legislation designed to explode in the news a few weeks before an election. Party discipline demands that the majority not support these motions. But party discipline sometimes incurs political risk. Does this sound familiar? “Congressman X voted to allow illegal immigrants to receive food stamps.” That was the motion to recommit that ignited the McNulty controversy, which a few Republicans labeled as “gavelgate.”

Last week, House Democrats entered a very different world. They have given the American people what they want and need, which is restraint on a presidency running loose and wildly out of control. They have gone from wandering in the wilderness to wielding the gavel. It is a truly glorious feeling, until you are left holding that gavel at the rostrum during those midnight special orders, when the only people awake are whatever Republicans are droning in, the camera operator, and you. Good luck.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is a novelist whose latest book is “Big Guns.” You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael and Facebook @RepSteveIsrael.