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Greenfield: The curse of congressional leaders?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

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CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One of the most powerful leaders of Congress is leaving under fire. It's not only a big story in itself; it's also a sign of a striking change in our political process.

Once upon a time, the most powerful members of Congress were all but immune to challenge. But in more recent years, the watchword has come from Shakespeare: "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

As speaker of the House at the start of the 20th century, Republican Joe Cannon - "Uncle Joe," they called him - used and abused so much power that the House revolted in 1910, stripping him of some of his clout.

It took 79 years for another House speaker -- Jim Wright - to be brought into check. He resigned his post, and his House seat, after Republican back-benchers, led by Newt Gingrich, leveled a series of ethics charges against him.

Democratic Majority Whip Tony Coelho, whose finances became a target of inquiry, also left the House in 1989.

Wright's successor, Tom Foley, fared no better. Not only did he lose his speaker's post when Republicans won the House in 1994, he also lost his own seat - the first speaker to suffer such an indignity since 1860.

His successor was Gingrich, who led a series of ethics attacks against Democrats. But Gingrich himself was the target of an ethics investigation over fundraising; he was forced to pay a large fine, was almost ousted by his fellow Republicans in a coup ... and after Republicans suffered losses in the 1998 midterms, Gingrich resigned.

His successor was supposed to be Bob Livingston, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. But in late 1998, in the midst of impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, Livingston - facing sexual misconduct allegations of his own - announced to the House that he would resign.

And the Senate hasn't provided security for its leaders lately, either. Republican Trent Lott was forced from his post in 2002, after suggesting that the country might have been better off had it elected segregationist Strom Thurmond as president.

And in 2004, Tom Daschle, a Democrat, became the first Senate party leader in more than 50 years to lose a re-election effort.

It really is a measure of how Washington has changed; the one-time assumption of civility, of political adversaries remaining friends and colleagues after-hours, is pretty much gone now. The idea of not challenging a key leader of the opposition party is considered hopelessly out of date, especially given the relatively narrow margins of control in both houses.

It was a lot easier for Republicans and Democrats to be civil when both parties knew that Democratic control of Congress was more or less a given. Now, if the other side thinks it can bring you down, it doesn't matter how high up you are.

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