The Establishmentarian

Democrats have won control of the House, and Steny Hoyer has Tom DeLay’s old job. Some things will change. Some won’t.
By Zachary Roth

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In May, the Milken Family Foundation, a nonprofit education organization, held a reception on Capitol Hill to honor supporters in Congress. Teachers and education administrators from around the country—excited at getting to play at being bigshots for the day—stood drinking warm white wine and talking mainly to the people they had arrived with, waiting for the chance to snap a picture with their elected official of choice. After a while, a foundation executive called the room to some kind of order, and introduced Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). The avuncular northern-California liberal ambled, cane-assisted, to the small podium, and began to deliver his prepared remarks on education policy. Most of the crowd strained respectfully to listen, but there was noise coming from the adjoining front room as new attendees arrived, and soon people were holding fingers over lips and shushing each other. Miller wrapped up, and was followed by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a slight, ferrety former orthopedic surgeon, who similarly struggled to command the crowd’s attention.

When House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was introduced, he was wrapped in a platonic but full-bodied embrace with Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). “I’ll be right with you,” Hoyer called from the depths of Lincoln’s neck. The senator, who looks like a soccer mom, is neither attractive nor unattractive enough for this to have been awkward, and the crowd roared with delight. As Hoyer strode to the podium, he passed House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), a politician with a reputation for schmoozing perhaps equal to Hoyer’s own, and the two literally slapped each other on the back simultaneously. “Do you have the votes?” Hoyer asked Boehner, a propos, it seemed, of nothing except a shared love of the legislative process. Once in front of the microphone, Hoyer milked the Lincoln moment a little longer (“I’ve got enough time to be hugging beautiful women from the United States Senate,”) then got down to business: “There are no more important people in American society than its teachers,” he declared slowly and firmly, and, for the first time, the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. They had come to Washington to see a show like this.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%If Hoyer, 67, appears to have an extra spring in his step lately, there’s a good reason. As the number-two Democrat in the House, he’ll likely become majority leader if Democrats win control this November. And if they don’t, he’ll be well placed to capitalize on Democratic disappointment by challenging Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for her job. Either way, then, Hoyer seems assured of entering 2007 as one of the most powerful elected officials in Washington, yet one of the least known outside of it.

As the Milken performance suggested, Hoyer can often seem almost a caricature of an old-school politician. A large, broad-shouldered man with a shock of silver hair, he favors well-tailored though not ostentatious suits, and the American-flag lapel-pin that since 9/11 has become de rigeur for elected officials and Fox News commentators everywhere. Hoyer’s wife died of stomach cancer in 1997, and the reception room of his office displays a framed version of the slightly sad photograph favored by virtually every unmarried member of Congress: Hoyer, grinning gamely, with his dog. “If you had to go to Hollywood and cast a politician, you’d pick Steny,” a Hill staffer once told a reporter.

Like a lot of politicians, Hoyer uses humor both as an icebreaker and as a kind of weapon. “So you’re doing an exposé on me?” he asked when we met at the reception, then winked and hit me in the chest, in a way that seemed intended to be playful. (I noticed him wink twice more, at two other people, over the 15 minutes that followed.) Later, as I sat down to interview him at his office in the Capitol, I asked if I could use a digital recorder. Sure, Hoyer replied, then told me, deadpan, that the room contained a machine that would erase the recording anyway.

Since entering Congress in 1981, Hoyer has forged an identity as a centrist, particularly on foreign-policy issues, that has helped make him the leadership’s unofficial liaison to the Blue Dog Democrats—a group of the caucus’s more conservative members—but has at times created tension with the more liberal Pelosi. On the day last December that she publicly backed a call from Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) for withdrawal from Iraq, Hoyer released a statement declaring that such a policy “could lead to disaster.” And earlier that year, he angered the leader by supporting a bill being pushed by the credit-card industry designed to make it harder for people to declare bankruptcy.

This conservatism has not won him friends among liberal bloggers—who argue that Democrats should have the courage of their convictions on basic issues of war and peace and economic fairness. But if Democrats do indeed retake power next year, keeping the party united will be crucial to many of the tasks that they’ll confront—from working to fix disastrous Republican legislation to conducting the vigorous oversight of the Bush administration that has been all but non-existent over the last six years. Because many of the House’s more conservative Democrats—not to mention its Republicans—simply trust Hoyer more than they do Pelosi, he stands to play a crucial role in holding the often fractious party together, and in working with the GOP, where possible, to pass legislation and hold the president accountable.

It’s less Hoyer’s centrism that may cause problems for Democrats, and more what might be called his establishmentarianism. As the studied bonhomie of his public style suggests, he is in many ways a throwback to an earlier style of politician. He’s been politically active since the early 1960s, and his initial rise owed much to his mastery of the clubby machine politics that dominated his home county, and much of the Democratic Party, through the end of that decade. In the 1970s, as that system yielded to one dominated by interest groups and grassroots activists, he adapted, building rock-solid relationships with all the major Democratic constituencies—the labor, civil-rights, environmental, and women’s movements. And throughout his career, he has earned a reputation for maintaining good relations with as many players as possible. “Mr. Hoyer’s policy is that you’ve got to listen to all sides. Never close the door to anyone whether you agree with them or disagree with them,” says Bill Cable, his chief of staff. When I asked friends and former staffers which issues Hoyer seemed to feel most passionately about, most spoke instead about his political skills. “He cares more about process than issues, per se,” says John Moag, who worked for him in both the Maryland state Senate and the U.S. Congress. “Good process ultimately produces good policy. This is a guy who’s been compromising his whole life because he knows that’s how it gets done.”

In some ways, a leader with a healthy respect for Congress’s traditional procedures would be a breath of fresh air after the last decade, in which Reps Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Tom DeLay (R-Texas) rode roughshod over almost a century of established legislative norms. But the flip side of Hoyer’s obsession with process and old-fashioned relationship building is a reluctance to think strategically about changing the ways that Washington operates—even when doing so would benefit Democrats. Over the last year and a half, Hoyer—a protégé of Tony Coelho, the former California congressman who revolutionized Democratic fundraising in the 1980s—has led an aggressive effort to raise money from K Street lobbyists. Even more important, he has seemed unwilling to fundamentally rethink the unhealthy relationship between lobbyists and legislators that currently drives our political system. If Democrats are not only to regain power, but to maintain it and govern in a fairer and more responsive fashion, they’ll need to unite behind root-and-branch reform. But the evidence suggests that Hoyer lacks the political vision, and the will, to do so.

The player

Hoyer was born in New York City in 1939, and lived there until he was nine. His stepfather was in the Air Force, and, after a stint in Florida, was transferred in 1955 to Andrews Air Force base in Maryland. The family settled in suburban Suitland, about eight miles southeast of Washington D.C.—and Hoyer has been an inside- (or just outside-) the-Beltway creature ever since.

Hoyer first caught the political bug as a sophomore at the University of Maryland, when John Kennedy, campaigning for president, showed up on campus in a Pontiac Bonneville convertible. Impressed by the senator’s panache, Hoyer switched his major from public relations to politics, went to Georgetown Law, and threw himself into his local Prince George’s County Democratic association. He also began interning for Sen. Daniel Brewster (D-Md.), where he worked alongside a young Nancy D’Alesandro, later Nancy Pelosi. Hoyer says he spent much of his law-school time “politicking,” and, months after graduating in 1966, he was elected to the Maryland state Senate from Prince George’s County. He was 27.

Once in office, Hoyer used his personal and political skills to quickly amass power. Over the following decade, he patiently developed relationships with his Senate colleagues, and with leading political figures in his district. With his friend and ally Peter O’Malley, Hoyer built a political machine that came to dominate Prince George’s County. Through an agreement with Gov. Marvin Mandel, Hoyer’s operation was able to select appointees for state positions like judgeships, and could effectively pick Democratic candidates for countywide races. In 1974, with the backing of his organization, Hoyer, aged 35, was elected the youngest-ever president of the state Senate. Hoyer’s absorption in state and local politics was so total during this period of his life that, while giving a speech as a member of Congress almost 15 years later, he referred to Nelson Mandela as “Marvin Mandela”—an unconscious reference to the man who had stepped down as Maryland’s governor in 1979.

Most successful politicians, of course, have their early setback story. Hoyer’s came in 1978, when he quit the Senate to run for lieutenant governor, but was upset in the Democratic primary. For two and a half years, he was out of politics, working as a lawyer, and depressed, waiting for a chance to get back in the game. In October 1980, that chance came when Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.), the popular U.S. Congresswoman from Prince George’s County, suffered a heart attack while campaigning and fell into a coma, necessitating a special Democratic primary and general election to replace her (she would remain comatose until her death in 1988). Hoyer’s strong ties to local political figures helped him defeat 31 opponents, including Spellman’s husband, for the nomination.
In the general election, Hoyer received strong support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), whose new chairman, Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), became intensely involved in the race—fostering a valuable long-term alliance between the two. Even during this first congressional campaign, Hoyer’s relentlessly ingratiating manner was apparent: A New York Times reporter covering the race likened him to “a polished, neatly dressed assistant manager of a fine hotel.” Helped by the demographics of the district, unease over President Reagan’s plan to cut Social Security benefits, and his strong backing from local labor unions, Hoyer prevailed with 55 percent of the vote.

Still, some local political powerbrokers had mixed feelings about Hoyer’s ascension to Congress, fearing that it would allow him to once again dominate county politics. During the campaign, a group of prominent county Democrats had endorsed Hoyer, but made it clear that, if elected, he was not to meddle in Prince George’s political affairs. A decade later, a local delegate to the statehouse told a reporter: “When he won [election to Congress], people thought there would be a return to the days when you didn’t go to the bathroom until you checked with him. Then he figured out he could be Speaker of the House of the U.S. Congress if he stopped being concerned about who every liquor inspector was in Prince George’s County.”

Speaker of the House might have to wait, but there was no doubt that Hoyer’s special election win had got him noticed as an up-and-comer. He received a congratulatory call from Walter Mondale, and a bear hug from Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.). His rapid ascent was aided immeasurably by his friendship with Coelho. The heretofore little-known DCCC chair was at that time launching an aggressive effort to reshape the party’s fundraising apparatus by targeting business and lobbying interests, and, in so doing, position himself as a power player. Coelho invited Hoyer to participate in an operation designed to get members involved in fundraising and other efforts to help elect Democrats. He also convinced O’Neill to select Hoyer as the only freshman included in the Democratic response to Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union address. The following year, Hoyer, despite having been in the House less than two years, won a coveted spot on the Appropriations committee, which allowed him to steer federal projects to his suburban Washington district.

In 1989, Coelho was forced to resign his seat amid questions over a junk bond purchase. But Hoyer turned what could have been a setback into an opportunity, taking advantage of the turmoil in House Democratic circles to win the job of caucus chair, which gave him a platform to help shape party policy in the House, and to further develop relationships with colleagues. He also took over Coelho’s stewardship of disability legislation (Hoyer’s wife and Coelho were both epileptics). In a display of legislative skill praised even by his opponents, Hoyer negotiated a compromise with the bill’s Republican foes, and in 1990 won passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act.

A year later, the whip’s job opened up, when Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.) resigned. Hoyer quickly announced his intention to challenge the more senior Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) for the position, and attracted support among some younger and more centrist Democrats. But there was something in Hoyer’s swift rise and poorly concealed ambition that rubbed some members the wrong way. A Bonior supporter likened him to “the rush chairman of a second-rate fraternity.” It was an image that Hoyer was never quite able to shake, and he lost the race by 160 votes to 109.

Hoyer spent much of the next few years tending to his district. After Maryland redistricted in the early 1990s, he was forced to give up his safe seat in Prince George’s County and move to a more rural area of the state, with a higher percentage of registered Republicans. Hoyer responded by donning cowboy boots, emphasizing his more conservative positions, and using his seat on the Appropriations committee to prevent the closure of a major naval base, and to help deliver other federal programs to his district. He has been re-elected with increasingly large margins since.

Even once Democrats were in the minority in 1995, Hoyer used his cordial relations with Republican committee chairs to maintain a position of influence. And though he had been forced by term limits to resign his caucus chair position, his close relationship with the Democratic leader, Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), allowed him, unlike most other Democrats, to keep key assignments on two Appropriations sub-committees. Gephardt also kept Hoyer in the leadership mix, naming him the House Democrats’ chief liaison to the White House, Senate and DNC.

Still, Hoyer yearned to move into the ranks of genuine leadership, and for a few years he could only bide his time, help elect Democrats, and work slowly to build his support in the caucus. After Democrats gained seats in the 1998 midterms, the party began to talk openly about winning back the House in 2000. If that happened, it was assumed that Gephardt and Bonior would become, respectively, speaker and majority leader, opening up the whip’s job again. Soon, Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi were embroiled in a delicate campaign—at first quiet, then gradually more public—for the position. Hoyer’s camp cast him as a moderate who would be more able to bridge divisions in the caucus. Though the two were seen salsa dancing together at a party retreat in early 2000, by November they were open rivals.

Democrats, of course, didn’t retake the House in 2000. But in September 2001, Bonior announced his intention to resign, and the Hoyer-Pelosi contest, temporarily suspended, started up again in earnest. Now, with the prize no longer hypothetical, almost no holds were barred. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) complained that Pelosi supporters in the California state legislature had threatened to redraw her congressional district as retribution for backing Hoyer. When the votes were counted in November 2001, Pelosi’s liberal bona fides, her overwhelming support among the California delegation, and her prodigious fundraising ability among wealthy West Coast donors were enough to secure victory.

And yet, as he had done his whole political career, Hoyer kept running. He knew that the job was likely to open up once again the following year, since Gephardt would probably resign to run for president if Democrats again failed to win the House. Hoyer formed an informal kitchen cabinet of Coelho, Donna Brazile, Mark Mellman, and other key Democratic operatives, and moved aggressively to head off potential challengers, calling members soon after many of them had voted for Pelosi to ask for their support in a future whip race. Many agreed. When Gephardt did indeed step down in November 2002 to run for president, and was replaced as minority leader by Pelosi, Hoyer was unanimously elected whip. He had arrived, for now.

‘I think Nancy and I like one another’

The job that Hoyer is likely to assume in a Democratic-run House is currently at perhaps the historical zenith of its power. For most of the 20th century, House leaders were in many ways subordinate to the powerful, veteran committee chairs who controlled the flow of legislation and ran the oversight process. On the Democratic side, that system began breaking down in the 1970s, when the growing homogenization of the party increased the level of trust that party leaders enjoyed from their caucus, allowing them to assume more authority over legislative priorities and committee assignments. After 1995, Republicans, led by Gingrich, adopted an even more top-down governing model, ending the seniority system by which committee chairmanships had been handed out, and pressuring members to vote with the leadership on virtually every bill. That in turn has forced the House Democratic leadership, in opposition, to adopt a more disciplined, parliamentary approach designed to hold the caucus together. And Democratic leaders have already begun signaling that, should they win in November, they may ape many of the GOP’s efforts to centralize power, including ending the seniority system.

This shift has also had the effect of increasing the power of the majority leader, relative to that of the speaker. The majority leader traditionally serves as the floor manager and floor spokesman for the party, meaning that, along with the party whips, he has a more direct role in enforcing party discipline and in moving legislation through the House than does the speaker—whose job has generally been to serve as an institutional figurehead for the House, and public spokesman for the party. A governing style that emphasizes party discipline, then, necessarily places more weight on the majority leader than on the speaker. In addition, the powers of the office were further expanded by DeLay, who served as majority leader from 2003 until last year, and whose hard-nosed political style and willingness to exact retribution on those who defied him helped make him unquestionably the most powerful figure in Congress. 

The result is that, should Hoyer ascend to the majority leadership next year, he would wield more power than perhaps any previous Democratic holder of the office has ever enjoyed. The makeup of the Democratic leadership team—with the more centrist, conciliatory Hoyer serving as majority leader under the more liberal Pelosi—represents a departure from the last eight years of GOP rule, in which the majority leader, first Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and then DeLay, was far more overtly partisan, and more ideologically conservative, than Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). The arrangement echoes, in some ways, the period from 1977 to 1987, when the moderate Rep. Jim Wright (D-Texas) served as majority leader under the old-school Massachusetts liberal O’Neill. But Wright won the post over Rep. Phil Burton (D-Calif.)—whose relationship with O’Neill was famously poor—in part by pledging to remain loyal to the speaker, and rarely allowed his moderate ideological instincts to stand in the way of his ability to fit into a more liberal leadership team.

Hoyer, too, has pledged his loyalty to Pelosi, but his more centrist identity, his communications skills, and his obvious ambition have created a sense within the caucus that he represents the logical alternative to her sometimes artless leadership style. In December 2003, according to the columnist Bob Novak, as Pelosi was wrapping up a characteristically long-winded speech, a liberal member whispered to Hoyer, “Steny, is it not time for a coup?”

It was not time, and by and large Hoyer has played the loyal soldier since becoming whip. Most Democrats agree he deserves some of the credit for the dramatically increased Democratic unity on display over the last year and a half, in part because of the changes he instituted to the whipping operation, including permanently assigning deputy whips to “cover” specific members of the caucus. During the Social Security fight last year, Pelosi and Hoyer, working together, succeeded in convincing almost every Democrat to avoid offering an alternative plan of his or her own, preventing the White House from shifting attention away from the unpopularity of its own approach, and ultimately dooming the president’s initiative. But even here, there was a hint that Hoyer’s constant desire to avoid alienating allies threatened to undo the Democrats’ hard-won unity: When Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) floated a tentative proposal of his own, aides to Pelosi denounced it as a tactical blunder, but Hoyer called it “useful.”

This fundamental difference in political tactics, style, and ideology burst more fully into the open late last year over Iraq. Hoyer has always advocated a more hawkish approach to national security than many Democrats. In 1985, he broke with his party to support funding for Reagan’s MX missile, and in the 1990s pressured President Clinton to lift the arms embargo against Bosnian Muslims, and to intervene more aggressively in the Balkans. Unlike Pelosi, he voted to authorize Bush to invade Iraq. Then, last November, after Murtha—a longtime Pelosi ally who had run her whip campaign in 2000—called for an immediate withdrawal, Hoyer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) urged Pelosi not to join Murtha, arguing that doing so would hurt Democrats politically. The leader’s camp reacted angrily. George Miller, Pelosi’s best friend in Congress, accused Hoyer of trying to undermine her. Murtha ordered Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), a close Hoyer ally, “tell your friend Hoyer” to stop stirring up trouble, then gave a speech in which he defended his call for withdrawal, saying he was more concerned with saving lives than with playing politics, and “looking right at Hoyer,” according to a Democratic aide quoted in The Hill. Pelosi did ultimately back Murtha, but Hoyer, voicing the concerns of more conservative Democrats, prevailed on her to allow members to come up with their own positions on the issue. And on the day that Pelosi announced her support for withdrawal, Hoyer released a statement of his own, declaring that “a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster, spawning a civil war, fostering a haven for terrorists and damaging our nation’s security and credibility.” (Since then, Democrats have managed to agree on a position that calls for 2006 to be a year of “significant transition” in Iraq.)

When I asked Hoyer about his split with Pelosi on Iraq, he first pointed out that when she was whip, she had publicly differed on the subject with Gephardt, the minority leader at the time. Then, unbidden, he brought up the wider issue of his relationship with Pelosi. “We are a team,” he told me. “She’s the leader. I’m supportive of the leader. The bloggers want to create some sort of tension between Nancy and I (sic). I understand all that, but the reality is, I think Nancy and I like one another. But even if we didn’t like one another, we’re both smart politicians. If we’re going to be successful, it’s going to be because we’re a team. And we are a team.” He seemed to want to get at something that was bothering him. “Is there tension between the leader and the whip? Yes, there always is … simply because you have different perspectives. And you’ve got to work it out. But there aren’t any problems that we can’t solve, and aren’t solving.”

As Hoyer points out, discord between the leader and the whip is nothing new, and previous leadership teams have overcome it to work together effectively. But Hoyer’s April 2005 vote for the bankruptcy bill suggests a more fundamental problem. The legislation, a long-held priority of the credit-card industry, makes it more difficult for those in debt to get a fresh start by filing for bankruptcy. Pelosi at one point warned that the bill would turn hardworking Americans into “modern-day indentured servants,” and many Democrats saw the vote as a defining issue of economic justice, hoping to use it to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans and bolster their party’s appeal to working- and middle-class voters.  That task was made all but impossible when Hoyer—who has received sizable contributions from the banking industry—and 72 other Democrats voted for the bill. At a whips’ meeting soon after, a furious Pelosi accused the bill’s Democratic supporters of selling out to special interests, while Hoyer defended them—and himself.

Hoyer noted to me that he had voted for the bill when it had come up several times in previous years, and said his decision was based on a belief in personal responsibility.  “The argument that bankruptcies were becoming simply a way to excuse irresponsible behavior had validity to it,” he told me.  “I believe that personal responsibility expectations are very important.  No Child Left Behind, the accountability of students and teachers and parents and administrators to provide taxpayers their value ... The core value of personal responsibility is what I felt was manifested in the bankruptcy bill.” But Elizabeth Warren, an expert on bankruptcy at Harvard Law School, points out that 90 percent of families who file for bankruptcy do so after a job loss, a serious medical problem, a divorce, or a death. “What was the personal responsibility that they were missing?” Warren asks.  “Was it that when Dad had chest pains and fell to the ground, he went to the emergency room rather than saying, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to pay for it’? ... Was it that when Mom got laid off from her job, she didn’t just hand over her keys to the landlord and move into a cardboard box on the street with her two children?” Warren, who was active in opposing the bill, says she spoke to members of Congress who, for months before the vote, were getting two or three personal visits a day from banking-industry lobbyists. “There were a lot of folks who succumbed to that,” she says.

Hoyer’s decision to side with the banking industry over penniless Americans was made less defensible by his virtually impregnable political position. Some of the bill’s Democratic supporters represent marginal districts, where acquiring a reputation as anti-business could put them in electoral danger. But Hoyer was re-elected in 2004 with almost 70 percent of the vote. That leaves only two plausible explanations for his decision: Either he favored the bill on the merits—which suggests a fundamental disharmony with his party’s core values—or he was doing a favor for corporate lobbyists. Or maybe both.

K Street crusade

Whatever the motivation for Hoyer’s vote, there is no doubt he has worked hard to curry favor on K Street. Over the last year and a half, he has ramped up an effort—begun soon after taking over the whip’s job—to raise money for Democrats from Washington business lobbyists. Starting in late 2004, Hoyer and three close allies—Reps. Crowley, Tauscher, and John Tanner (D-Tenn.)—launched an energetic K-Street-outreach program, with a goal of raising $250,000 for vulnerable Democratic incumbents by June 2006. Later, they would switch the focus to raising money for promising Democratic challengers, increasingly basing their pitch on the growing likelihood that Democrats would retake the House this fall, and thus be in a position to pass legislation. Hoyer’s particular political gifts—his persuasiveness, his talent for negotiation, and his willingness to see all sides of an issue—appear to have made him well suited to the task. “We find mutual interests, mutual ways to help each other,” says Cable, the chief of staff.

But the outreach has at times complicated Democrats’ efforts to capitalize on the slew of Republican influence-buying scandals—from Abramoff to DeLay to Cunningham to Safavian to Ney—that has come to light over the last year and a half. After Hoyer’s office posted on its website a news story describing the fundraising project, Republicans were quick to call Hoyer a hypocrite for attacking the GOP over Abramoff while at the same time touting his relationships with lobbyists. Hoyer’s staff quickly took the story down.

To be sure, Pelosi has not shied away from reaching out to K Street either. And to remain financially competitive with Republicans under Washington’s existing campaign-finance rules, Democrats probably can’t afford to turn up their noses at an entire sector of contributors. More problematic than the fundraising program has been Hoyer’s stance on lobbying reform, in which he has consistently stood in the way of Democratic efforts to unite behind a far-reaching approach. Hoyer’s opposition to reform appears to be of long standing, and well known on both sides of the aisle. Back in October 1994, Congress had been considering a lobbying reform bill that many lawmakers privately considered too restrictive. According to Roll Call, DeLay and Hoyer were walking down the Capitol steps shortly before leaving for the October recess in advance of the midterms that would bring the GOP to power, when the Texan “cupped his hands around his mouth and chuckled to Hoyer, ‘But lobbying reform is dead!’” DeLay, it seems, understood even then that he and Hoyer were of one mind on the issue.

Not much has changed in the intervening 12 years. When lobbying reform resurfaced as an issue in Washington last year in the wake of the Abramoff scandal, congressional Democrats at first seized on it. They knew that Republicans, responding to the need to appear to be doing something, would put out a watered-down “reform” proposal that would do little to curb the outsized influence business lobbyists currently enjoy. By rallying around a far tougher platform of their own, Democrats hoped to burnish their party’s image with voters as an honest, responsive alternative to the GOP’s fealty to corporate interests. Emanuel, the DCCC chair, announced that he intended to make the issues raised by the Abramoff scandal the centerpiece of the Democratic effort to retake the House, and Pelosi struck a similar note.

But the Democrats’ hoped-for unity did not materialize, thanks in part to Hoyer. In the summer of 2005, Pelosi and a host of other Democrats co-sponsored a bill introduced by Emanuel and Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) that would have prohibited lobbyists from paying for members’ non-campaign-related travel, required members to disclose all congressional trips, and increased penalties for violations of lobbying disclosure laws, among other steps. But Hoyer announced that he preferred an approach that addressed misconduct by individual members, rather than cracking down on the activities of lobbyists—and pointedly did not co-sponsor the measure (though he did endorse it). Ultimately, Hoyer did come around to supporting another strong proposal that Pelosi announced in January 2006, but even here, his heart didn’t seem to be in it: He was the only Democrat in a leadership position in either chamber to miss the package’s press rollout event. And that same week he was still expressing a reluctance to crack down. “It is not the rules that are the issue, it’s the character of the players,” he told Bloomberg News.

More broadly, Democrats have not made lobbying reform or congressional ethics central to their national message for the upcoming midterms, as Pelosi and Emanuel had indicated they would. There are several reasons for this: For one thing, most of the evidence suggests that voters care far more about Iraq and gas prices. But some Democratic insiders say another factor has been the unwillingness of certain members of the caucus to risk losing some of the perks of office, or to offend their corporate backers, by taking a strong stand in favor of reform. That position was no doubt strengthened by the presence in leadership of a politician with a record of publicly touting his close ties to K Street, and a stated reluctance to seriously tighten lobbying rules.

Changing the game

Hoyer’s heresies, while helping him win the support of the more conservative members of the House Democratic caucus, have put him at odds with the new, more hard-nosed, less conciliatory version of the party that has been in evidence over the last year and a half. In June, Murtha launched a campaign to challenge Hoyer for majority leader should Democrats win in November. Responding to the concerns of senior Democrats that a leadership challenge would threaten the party’s hard-won unity, the Pennsylvanian quickly suspended the effort until after the midterms, but did not call it off. (Most observers still give Hoyer a clear edge if a race occurs.)

Hoyer has also emerged, not surprisingly, as a bete noire of the liberal blogosphere. In response to the bankruptcy bill vote, Atrios asked readers to call Hoyer and tell him to resign. After Hoyer broke with Pelosi on Iraq, the Democratic activist David Sirota, writing on The Huffington Post, lambasted “Hoyer’s Campaign to Undermine Dems and Topple Pelosi.” And in April, the comedian Steven Colbert won plaudits from liberal commentators and bloggers for his merciless skewering of President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner, but Hoyer called the performance “in bad taste”—a judgment that earned him this denunciation from Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos: “We need a Joe Lieberman of 2008, an entrenched do-nothing Dem desperately in need of a good primary challenger. Good to see Hoyer auditioning for the part.”

Hoyer is no Lieberman. For one thing, his Democratic bona fides are unquestioned: As his busy travel and fundraising schedule over the last few months suggests, he’s intensely committed to the goal of victory in November. And he seems to relish feeding the latest hard-hitting Democratic talking point to the press. “Hoyer says, ‘Republicans in pocket of administration.’ That’s a good quote,” he recently told a roomful of reporters, grinning.

More broadly, a leadership team in which both the liberal and centrist wings of the caucus are represented undoubtedly has its advantages. First, when it comes to what is perhaps the Democrats’ most important job over the next two years—conducting vigorous oversight of the Bush administration—Hoyer appears well placed to help ensure that the effort is bold and far-reaching, without devolving into anything the media could portray as a partisan witch-hunt. In addition, achieving many of the party’s domestic priorities—a minimum-wage hike, and repeal of some of the Bush tax cuts—will require the support, or at least the relative neutrality, of business groups and economic interests that Hoyer has cultivated over the years. And Hoyer’s moderate demeanor, smooth communication skills, and relatively conservative home district may make him a more effective public face for the party than Pelosi, whom Republicans have had some success demonizing as a strident San Francisco liberal.

But there are also reasons why Hoyer may not be the right leadership candidate for the current political moment. For one thing, Democrats need to draw sharp distinctions with Republicans over bread-and-butter economic issues. Hoyer’s support for the bankruptcy bill—a priority for many of his major contributors, but to many Democrats a litmus-test issue of basic economic fairness—suggests he might have trouble convincingly making the case that Democrats represent a genuine alternative to the GOP’s corporate-friendly domestic policies. After a five-year recovery in which wages haven’t kept pace with inflation and economic insecurity has increased for many middle- and working-class Americans, Democrats can’t afford to sell out on key components of their economic platform.

Hoyer’s energetic wooing of Washington’s lobbying community is even more problematic. Democratic leaders from FDR to Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton have always had cozy relationships with corporate interests—including accepting their campaign cash—understanding that getting and keeping power, and governing wisely, require tradeoffs. Insisting that today’s leaders renounce all K Street money, or never meet with lobbyists at all, may be an unrealistic standard that would handicap Democratic efforts to gain power in the first place. But the spate of recent lobbying scandals revealed a system in which corporate interests enjoy an unprecedented degree of control over the legislative process. Indeed, the influence of corporate money on legislation is the single biggest obstacle to achieving a broad array of progressive policy goals—from universal health care, to a fairer tax code, to curbing global warming.

That’s why Democrats need leaders who are willing to play aggressively by the current rules of the game—but who seek to change those rules once in power. The enthusiasm with which Hoyer has raised money from K Street, his resistance to serious lobbying reform, and his general comfort with the Washington establishment all imply a politician with little interest in systemic change. Indeed, Hoyer’s contention that the problem lies not with lobbying practices as a whole, but rather with individual corrupt members of Congress, suggests he genuinely sees little need for such change.

In this sense, Hoyer, who styles himself the ultimate political realist, is missing a larger political reality: Because of fundamental differences in ideology, it will always be easier for Republicans than Democrats to create the kind of money-for-access-based governing machine that DeLay et al. perfected over the last decade. Genuinely restricting the lobbyist-legislator relationship would inconvenience members of both parties, but it would utterly destroy the model that has become the basis of Republican governance. And since politics—at least in a two-party system—is a zero-sum game, that can only work to Democrats’ advantage. A leader with the courage and independence to envision a fundamentally fairer and more honest Washington would be practicing not just good policy, but good politics, too.

   

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Zachary Roth is an editor of The Washington Monthly.  
 
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