Washington — Thirteen years ago, a shock wave hit the House of Representatives. Three autocratic committee chairmen were ousted by the majority Democrats, partly at the insistence of a self-styled group of reformers who were swept into Congress on the coattails of the Watergate scandal. ``It was the end of the old-fashioned seniority system,'' recalls House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino (D) of New Jersey. It was also the beginning of a new political reality in the House, one where once unassailable chairmen were forced to consider the wishes of even the lowliest freshmen.
Today, a more subtle change in committee leadership is in the offing, but one that will influence the House for years to come.
It is a generational changing of the guard. The uppermost tiers of the House hierarchy are coming within reach of the very cadre of younger lawmakers who helped launch the revolt against last decade's sitting chairmen. These prospective leaders promise to be more partisan than their predecessors, more aggressive in seizing opportunities to wield legislative power, and more adept at mastering the media-wise politics of the post-Vietnam era.
``This is a tough bunch coming in - very partisan,'' says Rep. Lynn Martin (R) of Illinois. Observes Rep. Mike Synar, a fifth-term Democrat from Oklahoma, ``We're looking at some major transitions.''
In fact, some of those transitions have already taken place, hinting at the impact of changes still to come. In 1985, Rep. Les Aspin, then a seventh-term Democrat from Wisconsin, leaped over the heads of five more-senior members of the Armed Services Committee to depose the sitting chairman, the late Rep. Melvin Price (D) of Illinois.
Before Representative Aspin assumed his post, the Armed Services Committee had been considered a safe haven for the Pentagon; it was comprised mostly of conservative champions of military programs who were loath to criticize the Reagan administration's defense buildup. But the panel has been reshaped under Aspin's leadership - its historic pro-Pentagon tilt squelched with the addition of younger, more liberal lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Aspin has joined with the Democratic leadership to craft a party defense policy. In recent years, the committee's defense spending bills have served as vehicles for leadership-sponsored arms control proposals opposed by the administration. ``It's really a different place since Les took over,'' says Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) of Oklahoma.
There have been similar changes in the House's Democratic leadership. Rep. Tony Coelho, a fifth-term Democrat from California, won election last year to the third-ranking slot in the House leadership hierarchy. As majority whip, Representative Coelho has teamed with House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas in refining a hardball political style that usually guarantees Democratic victories and infuriates the House's Republican minority.
``What's it like when Tony asks for your vote?'' asks one House Democrat. ``Let's see - ever been propositioned by a gorilla?''
That approach differs sharply from the style established by Speaker Wright's predecessor, former Speaker Thomas ``Tip'' O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts. Mr. O'Neill wielded power inconspicuously; his efforts were concentrated on building personal relationships and cutting back-room deals. But, says one Democratic leadership aide, ``We lost some important votes with Tip.''
Wright and Representative Coelho's take-charge approach appeals to younger members eager to put their agenda to work. ``We want to win, it's that simple,'' says Coelho.
That sort of aggressiveness has been picked up by some senior House members who are preparing to assume the reins of committees. When Representative Rodino retires next year, he will cede his post to another senior lawmaker, Rep. Jack Brooks (D) of Texas. But their styles could hardly differ more dramatically.
Rodino built a reputation as a cautious legislator who used his power more often to obstruct conservative social initiatives than to advance an active agenda of his own. Representative Brooks, on the other hand, took over the backwater Government Operations Committee in 1975 and transformed it into an aggressive instrument of oversight and investigation.
Both served in 1987 on the panel investigating the Iran-contra affair. Rodino's questions usually focused on legal issues. Brooks, by contrast, emerged as one of the most partisan of the administration's critics on the panel, dismissing more than one top official with an expletive.
``The committee will be popping under Brooks,'' exclaims one Democratic Judiciary Committee member. Says Rep. Martin Frost (D) of Texas: ``If Jack Brooks were chairman right now, Ed Meese would be in a lot more trouble than he is in.''
The top slots of six other House committees are occupied by chairmen in their 70s and 80s. Predicting their successors is an uncertain task - it assumes that Democrats continue to elect chairman largely based on seniority, and that Republicans, in the minority for 34 years, do not win a majority in the House. Moreover, the heirs apparent on some committees are very much of the ``old breed''.
But on several committees the transitions promise to bring a change of style and outlook, if not generation. It may be a while before the torch is passed on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, for example. When it is, however, Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin may well find himself chairman. Although he is the sixth-ranking member of the committee, Representative Obey is nearly 20 years younger than anyone before him.
The current chairman, the venerable Rep. Jamie Whitten (D) of Mississippi, shuns the limelight: He has never given a press conference. Obey, on the other hand, is an outspoken liberal who has used the appropriations committee as a platform from which to launch high-decibel broadsides at the Reagan administration.
Likewise, the quiet reign of Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D) of California over the Education and Labor Committee may some day give way to the tenure of a more-combative partisan, Rep. William Ford (D) of Michigan. Representative Ford is the sort of canny legislator who once proposed shutting down 10,000 small-town post offices to comply with budget cuts, knowing the plan would never be adopted.
Republicans view the changes with apprehension. The new generation of Democratic leaders, says Representative Martin, ``play by their own set of rules.''
Which could be the Democrats' very problem. With so many strong personalities and agendas in play, a few Democrats worry that their colleagues might end up finding it tough to agree on much of anything. ``The House will be asserting itself more - there'll be more legislation, more watch-dogging,'' says Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York. ``Whether all that activity will be focused in one direction or get thrown out in all different directions remains to be seen.''
Next Friday: The multi-media Congress