Capitol Letter: What The Hammer Wants ...

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a.k.a. "The Hammer," is the last man in Washington one would expect to see leading the fight for any kind of growth in government. He generally regards new programs much as he did the roaches he encountered as a Houston exterminator years ago--to be snuffed out wherever possible. But DeLay is also a former foster parent and a long-time advocate for abused and neglected children. Appalled by the chaotic condition of the District of Columbia's foster-care system, the Hammer is pushing hard for creation of a new family court in Washington.

DeLay got involved after reading about 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond, who was beaten to death in early 2000, two weeks after a D.C. Superior Court Judge approved her return to a troubled home. Her mother has been charged with the killing. The Washington Post, which reported extensively on Brianna's life and death, found that the city failed to properly handle at least 150 cases of child sexual abuse in 1999 and 2000, leaving many children vulnerable to continued mistreatment. "The District's system to protect children is, at best, troubled and, in too many cases, deadly," DeLay said last month, after joining D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams in signing a memorandum pledging action.

Right now, Superior Court judges in the District are rotated into the family division for one-to-two-year stints. It means that they often move in and out of children's cases with little continuity. DeLay wants to effectively strip the Superior Court of its authority in foster-care cases and create a separate family court, where judges serve voluntarily, receive special training and put in long terms. "We're negotiating how the court is structured, but those items are nonnegotiable," says DeLay spokeswoman Emily Miller.

Superior Court judges, trying to hang on to their jurisdiction over family cases, are developing their own series of reforms, which they will deliver to Congress by April 16. Chief Judge Rufus King III will say only that he is "working constructively with Mr. DeLay." The betting is that before year's end, the Hammer will get what he wants.

Experienced Reformers

They don't have John McCain's heroic story, or his busloads of press, but Reps. Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan have already done twice what McCain achieved this week for the first time: push campaign-finance reform to passage. In 1998 and 1999 Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Meehan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, shepherded their version of McCain-Feingold through a GOP-controlled House by comfortable margins. But it died in the Senate when McCain was unable to shut down a Republican filibuster. Now, with the Senate finally on board, Shays and Meehan, whose bill also bans unregulated soft money from national politics, will have to do it again. "We have an historic opportunity here," says Meehan. "Our conduct is going to be under a microscope."

Pro-reform sentiment in the House is strong. Shays-Meehan garnered 252 votes in 1999, including 54 Republicans who bucked their party's leadership. But a third passage is no sure thing. DeLay, who regards soft money as an essential element of Republican dominance in the House, has promised an all-out effort to sink the bill. Shays and Meehan had hoped to bring it to the floor before Memorial Day, but it now looks more like mid-summer, at the earliest, before the House takes it up. "There are two schools of thought," says John Feehery, press secretary to Speaker Dennis Hastert. "One is, 'Let's get it over with.' The other is, 'Over my dead body'."

House Democrats, who voted for Shays-Meehan secure in the knowledge that it was a dead letter in the Senate, are starting to sweat. Their fears could produce some unholy alliances. Rep. Martin Frost, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a "yes" vote in 1999, denied a report last week in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that he had offered to join forces with DeLay to kill the bill. Frost, who wouldn't return phone calls, did tell C-Span that he shared DeLay's concerns about what a soft money ban would do to the strength of political parties. "Tom will do what he's going to do, and I'll do what I'm going to do," says Frost.

Interest groups unhappy with the outcome in the Senate are preparing a fresh assault on the bill. Labor unions will continue to fight provisions in McCain-Feingold that bar advertising for or against specific candidates within two months of an election. Broadcasters will take aim at an amendment mandating that stations offer candidates the lowest available ad rates. "What passes in the Senate is not going to end up on the president's desk," predicts one top Democratic lobbyist. "There's going to be a lot of pushing and shoving."

It's unclear what path the bill will take through the House. Hearings are expected to begin in the House Administration Committee next month. But there has been some discussion among supporters of forcing it to the floor by "discharge petition," which requires 218 signatures. Shays and Meehan will also try to resist major changes that could send the bill into a conference committee, where House and Senate versions of the legislation would be reconciled. Conference has been a black hole for more than a few reform measures, and Republicans would almost certainly stack this one with members hostile to McCain-Feingold. "It means that Mitch McConnell and Tom DeLay will write the bill," says Shays. And that would mean another unhappy ending for campaign finance reform.

THE BATTLE OVER BEEF

Members of Congress often accuse the press of hyping a story to boost ratings or readership. But that doesn't stop them from riding the wave of that same story to grab some headlines and airtime of their own. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday morning, the issue was mad-cow disease and the precautions that the federal government is taking to prevent its spread from Europe to the United States. Senators from livestock-producing states were in high dudgeon over recent coverage of the illness, also known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), arguing that the media has scared people unnecessarily about a disease that has yet to show any signs of surfacing in this country.

Sen. Byron Dorgan held up a copy of NEWSWEEK's March 12 issue as Exhibit A-the one with a big, fat cow staring out from the cover-entitled "The Slow, Deadly Spread of Mad Cow Disease: How It Could Become an Epidemic." "One would conclude from this that mad-cow disease is rampant in the United States," said the North Dakota Democrat. "Holy smoke," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Republican from Colorado, a state with 12,000 meat producers and more than 3 million head of cattle. "That cover instills needless fear in people."

But after the complaints about media fearmongering, there was tacit acknowledgment of a central point in the piece: that the "firewall" protecting the domestic cattle industry from BSE is not as thick as it might be. Sen. Campbell called for the creation of a federal interagency task force to recommend better ways of safeguarding the nation's beef supply. Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, plans to introduce the National Food Security and Safety Act, which would require updated reporting on imported meat; ban cattle feed that includes blood, bone and fat from potentially infected animals, and tightens oversight of nonfood items that contain bovine material, like vaccines. "It is naive to believe that we can ignore the serious food and livestock threats facing Europe," says Durbin.