A Congress Gone to Pot
This is the cover story from the current issue of National Review:
A Congress Gone to Pot
If the GOP majority doesn't wake up, it will lose, and might even deserve to
KATE O'BEIRNE & RICHARD LOWRY
In response to a recent jump in gas prices, congressional Republicans reacted in characteristic fashion. They panicked, touted bad policy, and did themselves political harm, all in a spectacle seemingly designed to disgust the conservatives who had voted them into office. This has been a familiar pattern in recent years. The talk of Washington has been about the "shakeup" in the White House and what administration official "” Dick Cheney? Don Rumsfeld? John Snow? "” should be sacked to help turn around the national GOP's fortunes. We survey this scene and find ourselves asking, Is it Congress that should be fired?
President Bush deserves some of the blame for the rotten results from Congress "” sometimes, he has affirmatively pushed bad policy (most recently with his "comprehensive" immigration reform), and he has made it his standard operating procedure not to try seriously to rein in congressional excess. There is no doubt that his coordination with Capitol Hill could be better, and the inability of his team to anticipate political problems "” such as the Dubai ports-deal mess "” has made life more difficult than it need be for his fellow Republicans. But the GOP in Congress acts as if establishing a smoother White House operation were the key to eliminating all its troubles. In reality, the locus of the national party's malaise is as much, perhaps more, on Capitol Hill than in the Bush administration.
Congressional Republican governance has gone through phases that can be roughly described as Revolution (1994–1996), Consolidation (1996–2002), and Deterioration (2002–present). The deterioration has steadily gotten worse. The Republican majority has lately been notable for its bungling, fecklessness, self-serving defensiveness, and hysteria "” sometimes all at once. The congressional majority has repudiated Republican governance before voters even have the chance to do the same this November.
In terms of public esteem, Congress is floating somewhere between contemptible and beneath contempt. A recent poll finds only 22 percent approving of Congress's job performance, down 11 points over a single month. The drop comes with a sharp decline in approval by Republican respondents, according to GOP pollster Bill McInturff. Republicans hope to rally their base by raising the specter of Democratic control of Congress, but they are giving their supporters every reason to wonder: How much worse could that be?
Take gas prices. Speaker Denny Hastert and Majority Leader Bill Frist decided to play on the Democrats' familiar playing field by bashing the Big Bad Oil Companies. They called on the president to launch investigations into possible price gouging by the industry. Hastert called the compensation package for Exxon Mobil's retired CEO "unconscionable." His spokesman said, "Having a profit is good. We believe in that as Republicans. But when you're making this kind of money and American families are being affected, there should be appropriate things done to bring prices down." How exactly the compensation of oil executives affects American families is left unexplained. (Speaking of effects on American families, federal spending has exceeded $20,000 per household for the first time since World War II.)
If Democrats consider more taxes the answer to any question, some Republicans aren't far behind. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has backed Democrats' calls for a windfall-profit tax on oil companies, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ethanol) asked the IRS to allow Finance Committee aides to review the corporate tax returns of oil and gas companies for the past five years. For what? we wonder. According to the Tax Foundation, in 2005, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron paid $44.3 billion in corporate taxes on their gross earnings. These payments were almost 50 percent higher than taxes paid the previous year. In addition to corporate taxes, these three companies paid or remitted $114.5 billion in other taxes in 2005, including payroll, property, and excise taxes. In any case, Republicans once understood that corporations don't pay taxes, their shareholders, employees, and customers do.
The political problem with all this is that once Republicans have given away the premises of their governing philosophy "” in this case, that prices and executive compensation are determined by the market "” they have no foothold to resist Democratic initiatives. Try as they might, there is no way that Republicans can be more socialistic and economically populist than the Democrats. They have set up a bidding war that the GOP must, by definition, lose. The same applies to the immigration debate: The Democrats will always be more pro-amnesty, and therefore more pro-Hispanic in the terms some Republicans have helped set for the debate, than the GOP.
On gas, congressional Republicans have lurched from the substantively and politically wrongheaded to the self-parodic. As part of a panic-induced, hastily assembled legislative proposal that is already falling apart, they are proposing a $100 rebate to compensate voters for high gas prices, which would simply be taking money from taxpayers to give it back to taxpayers in a symbolic sprinkling of cash. It is no accident that the proposal closely mirrors a Jimmy Carter–proposed rebate to try to boost the economy, a pathetic initiative from a pathetic administration. Republicans haven't yet gotten around to making President Bush's tax cuts permanent, but can consume themselves with such marginalia.
Republicans can't even get their photo-ops right. When Speaker Hastert held a press event at a local gas station to promote hydrogen cars, he rode in one of the gas-free cars for about a block before getting back in his armored SUV for the return to the Capitol. Photographers suspected some such stunt, and caught him in the act of switching cars.
At least a rebate or a botched photo-op doesn't do harm to the core functions of government. During the last few years, Congress has specialized in problem-causing responses to problems. In response to September 11, it created an enormous, sprawling Department of Homeland Security, endorsed by President Bush. Smart analysts said at the time that a collection of 22 disparate agencies could not be made to function effectively, at least not for years. Indeed, when DHS secretary Mike Chertoff is at a microphone, you never know whether the topic is avian flu, border control, port security, natural disasters, or terrorist threats. These areas are so important, each could easily be the secretary's fulltime responsibility.
When DHS's dysfunction played into the chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina, Congress turned around and excoriated the people in charge of the unmanageable department it itself had created. Being in Congress means never having to own up to your own errors, when you can browbeat other people over them during televised hearings instead. Blame always rolls off Capitol Hill onto someone else.
The same dynamic has played out in the creation of a new national intelligence director. As with the Department of Homeland Security, there was a mad rush to pass the reorganization of the intelligence bureaucracy, this one prompted by a recommendation of the 9/11 commission. Again, some experts warned at the time that creating a new layer of bureaucracy would only . . . create another layer of bureaucracy. In the event, this is exactly what has happened, but the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee now are outraged by it, and can't believe that national intelligence director John Negroponte is presiding over the very over-bureaucratization Congress insisted on.
No doubt, if the near-total ban Congress rushed to pass on coercive interrogation methods last year ever manifestly puts a crimp on efforts to preempt a terror attack, Congress will lead the chorus of outrage. Hearings will be held, and careers ruined "” just not the careers of anyone who wrote the restrictions into law in the first place.
DAMN THE TORPEDOES, AND COMMON SENSE
What all three of these examples have in common is an unseemly stampede, a rush to take action that overwhelms any critical thought about the proposals in question. Congress couldn't even wait to get the Robb-Silberman report on how the intelligence community had missed the true state of Saddam's weapons program before rushing ahead to pass that intelligence reorganization. For the world's greatest deliberative body, Congress lacks any deliberative sense, lacks the ability or willingness to stop and think.
Congress always feels the need to "do something" in order to be "relevant," without caring too much what the something is. With its extensive oversight role, one would think that occasionally Congress would anticipate problems instead of always being in a reactive "” or over-reactive "” posture. But it missed the problems with the "wall" within the Justice Department that prevented effective counterterrorism coordination, the fecklessness of the CIA before 9/11 (and after), the rickety state of the electricity grid prior to the 2003 blackout, the fraud in corporate governance during the Internet bubble, the downside of absorbing FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, and the gas shortages that would be caused by last year's new ethanol mandate. Congress is always about after-the-fact clucking and finger-pointing.
Another thing Congress is incapable of doing is making fiscal choices. Spending discipline is honored only in the breach, and with rhetorical flourishes thrown to the party's base at opportune moments. When ambitious Republican politicians get together for pre-2008 events like the recent straw poll in Memphis, the talk is all of Ronald Reagan and limited government. The kind of governance in Washington that they deliver is exactly the opposite.
Incontinence has become a way of life. When President Bush threatened a veto if the supplemental spending bill for the Iraq War and Katrina cleanup exceeded $92 billion, the Senate promptly voted to keep funding for the Mississippi senators' absurd $700 million railway line in a bill that remains $14 billion over the limit set by Bush. Even when it knows that wasteful spending has fundamentally harmed its standing with the public, and especially with its core supporters, the GOP Congress just can't help itself.
Overall federal spending is up 33 percent during the majority's Deterioration phase, with defense and post-9/11 spending on domestic security representing less than half of this new spending. Republicans are responsible for the largest expansions in federal education spending in history (up 72 percent since 1995), along with record spending increases in agriculture, highways, and entitlements. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Senate's "compromise" immigration bill will cost $27 billion in mandatory spending over the first ten years, including $12 billion in Medicaid and $12 billion in Earned Income Tax Credits.
It has become a Republican specialty to get favors from the public trough.
The number of annual earmarks has grown tenfold since the Republicans took over the House in 1995, from 1,439 to 14,000 last year. The House leadership backs cracking down on some earmarks, while the Senate maintains its addiction. Congress seems incapable of acting in the broader public good. It is a collection of parochialisms, jostling for their own spending projects and creature comforts.
WHAT KIND OF REFORMERS ARE THESE?
That explains the course of reform in Congress. Earlier this year, the House Republicans elected a new majority leader, John Boehner. He was a relatively fresh face for the party, even if he is no stranger to K Street. But his election quickly became a way to forestall change rather than foster it. Republicans collectively said, in effect, "We have embraced "˜change' in the form of a new leader, now we don't have to adopt any of its substance."
Instead of passing a permanent ban on private travel, the GOP is proposing a moratorium on it until the election is over "” in the hope that the public heat will abate and that "further study" will provide a rationale to keep this popular perk. New reporting requirements and tougher penalties are imposed on lobbyists (none of which will trip up Jack Abramoff–style operators), while political PACs can continue to wine and dine members and play golf with them.
The reform the GOP can get excited about is attempting to muzzle its opponents. A majority of House Republicans once opposed the McCain-Feingold bill's contribution limits on PACs because they restricted political speech. But irked at the lavish funding of liberal nonprofit groups known as 527s during the 2004 campaigns, House Republicans have now passed a bill extending the McCain-Feingold contribution limits to these independent groups "” their prior principles be damned.
Republicans obviously want to duck their heads and hope they don't have to do anything painful to save themselves. The Washington Post reports that GOP lawmakers came back from Easter recess and "said they felt free to pass a relatively tepid ethics bill because constituents rarely mention the issue." Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) explained the alleged mistake of caring too much about the party's image on ethics. "We're all being rushed into a bill. We panicked, and we let the media get us panicked," he said. The only time Congress ever pulls back from a panic is to save its own perks.
Of course, panic is never a healthy reaction, but there is legitimate cause for GOP worry on the ethics front. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found the Democratic party was trusted more than Republicans "to do a better job handling corruption in Washington" by 52 percent to 27 percent. Last month, a Pew Research Center survey found that by 44 percent to 28 percent, voters believed that Democrats "could do a better job in reforming government." Will the corruption issue alone sink the GOP? No. But it adds to the fabric of the public's discontent. With ongoing criminal investigations involving Abramoff and former congressman Duke Cunningham, Republicans are only one new indictment or guilty plea away from another cycle of the "culture of corruption" charges they now witlessly dismiss as innocuous.
Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) rebutted criticisms of the watered-down reform proposal by explaining, "If everybody is unhappy with a piece of legislation, it's probably a pretty good bill." By this standard, Congress itself is probably doing a pretty good job.
AN ACT NOT TOGETHER
The GOP caucus has both a leadership and a followership problem. If Newt Gingrich exemplified the Revolution phase of the GOP majority and Tom DeLay the Consolidation phase, Senate majority leader Bill Frist is the perfect representative of the Deterioration phase. Unlike Gingrich and DeLay, he is in the Senate, so has an inherently more difficult job managing his majority. But Frist captures the current GOP aimlessness. One day he's in favor of an enforcement-first approach to immigration; the next he's in favor of a "compromise" that's a far-reaching amnesty. He favored an increase in taxes on oil companies to fund the Senate's gas-rebate scheme, before he opposed it.
Not that Frist, or other Republican congressional leaders, are in charge of orderly and sensible flocks. The whiff of defeat, along with the loss of legislative master Tom DeLay, has sent moderates and conservatives in the House scurrying in opposite directions "” the moderates to approve even more spending in an attempt to sway swing voters; the conservatives to crack down on spending to prevent a total rupture with the party's base.
In the Senate, Frist has to deal with a GOP caucus that features 54 other Republicans, almost all of whom consider themselves individual power centers. Senator Specter, for instance, is willing to torment the administration on an important national-security issue so Democrats won't have to. He is now threatening to block funding of the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program "” a popular program that has given the administration one of its few issues that can cut against Democrats. Meanwhile, Sen. John Warner has said he might provide a forum for disgruntled generals to bash Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, following Hillary Clinton's request to hear from the handful of former flag officers opposed to Rumsfeld. In the midst of a war, other Republican senators have blocked nominations for important national-security posts because of parochial concerns or unrelated policy objections.
The national-security issue that looms largest, of course, is the Iraq War. Republicans facing voters this year recognize that their party is on the "wrong" side of an unpopular war and grouse about the president's apparent inability to assuage doubts about the chances for success in Iraq. Their prospects at the polls would improve dramatically if their constituents better understood how crucial a stable, democratic Iraq is to our national security and if George W. Bush's poll ratings were ten points higher. Rather than being struck dumb on the subject in the face of discouraging public opinion, GOP members should be using their seemingly constant recesses to make the case for the war in their districts.
Presented with their own manifest failures, and the understandable public reaction to them, congressional Republicans have lately been whistling the old Tip O'Neill tune "All Politics Is Local" past the electoral graveyard. Their hope is that paying attention to constituents' casework, touting feel-good federal programs, and attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies at their precious pork projects can save the day. Of course, Tip O'Neill's own party was done in by a disaffected electorate focused on national issues. GOP strategist Dave Winston points out, "For the past 30 years, and maybe longer, the outcome of congressional elections in non-presidential years has, with one lone exception , been determined by a focus on national, not local, issues."
As the bad polling piles up, nervous Republicans will ask themselves, Can this Congress be saved? But the question frustrated Republican voters are increasingly asking is, Is it worth saving?