Push For Change Drives New Gop Lawmakers

Posted: January 06, 1995

WASHINGTON — Before this week, John Hostettler had never held an elected office.

Now the freshman congressman from Indiana considers it the best preparation he could have had for working on Capitol Hill.

"The ordinary citizen - myself - has a problem with the way things are going in Washington," said Hostettler, 33, a mechanical engineer. "I've got two years to make a difference."

The clock is running, and so is the 73-strong freshman Republican class in the House of Representatives - the "majority makers" as their older colleagues have dubbed them.

Lawmakers with four or fewer years here are now a majority in the House, and no one is talking about job security.

Quick to assert their credentials as incipient revolutionaries and citizen- legislators, the first-termers vow to be the instruments of change for a disaffected electorate.

But they have also rapidly learned that the most effective bomb may be the one wielded but not thrown, and that the best route to reform may not be the shortest one.

So modesty, not hubris, has been their initial gambit - though they see themselves as launched on an historic effort to restore public confidence in a much-maligned institution.

One freshman even said yesterday that this might be the last best chance for a generation to rescue Congress from its dismal approval ratings.

"Our class is probably the last hope that the American people have to feel good about Congress," said South Carolina's Lindsey Graham. "If we fail I believe we have lost the ability to turn around public confidence - probably for our lifetimes."

Graham, the first Republican elected from his district in 120 years, said the mandate of his class "is to restore a sense of connection between the institution and the people who sent us here."

But, added Graham, whose eyes were red-rimmed from the near-all-night opening session of the House, and whose House member's pin clung upside-down to his lapel, "I'm not for striking out blindly."

Having won the right to be arrogant, the freshmen are holding back.

There was Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.) - after a passionate tirade Wednesday night by Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts - complimenting Frank as being "even more impressive than on C-Span." And California's Andrea Seastrand saying she could learn more by being respectful of the veterans.

"I want to change the House, not attack it," said Seastrand, a former schoolteacher and state legislator.

It's as if the 800-pound gorilla chose not to sit.

Even Rep. George Nethercutt of Washington, lionized by his GOP seniors for being the man who brought down House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, has eschewed a mantle of machismo.

"My style is not to come in with guns blazing or shouting about what I want to get done," Nethercutt said. "I want to be a good listener and

learner.

"The institution deserves the respect of the newcomers - not to destroy it, but to improve it, make it better," he added.

Another giant-killer, Todd Tiahrt, who knocked off Democratic heavyweight Dan Glickman of Kansas, said he quickly wised up about being too impetuous.

"We really came to town last month ready to sell off the House Office annex building, you know, get sworn in, call the Realtor," said Tiahrt. ''Then we found out about existing leases and other factors, and we tempered our views somewhat," he said. "We're still reform-minded, but we want to be thoughtful about it."

Tiahrt and others noted that the GOP House leadership was quick to recognize the power and promise of the freshmen, according them committee assignments usually reserved for more senior members.

Tiahrt, a former Boeing Aircraft manager, said he won coveted spots on the National Security and Science Committees. Utah's Enid Greene Waldholtz was placed on the powerful Rules Committee, a first for a first-termer. Pennsylvania's Phil English sits on the tax-levying Ways and Means committee.

And freshmen were placed on the Committee on Committees, which makes assignments.

There's more. "I think the fact that we got agreement on limited terms for House speaker is also a product of the freshman class," Tiahrt said.

So for now, speaking softly and carrying a big mandate has been a good strategy for the newcomers.

How long will it last? The citizen-lawmakers hear the clock ticking.

"We may seem modest because the things we wanted to happen on the first day, did," said Indiana's Hostettler. "But we may not be so modest later on. We've changed history. We're going to assert ourselves."

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