What the Dems Will Do If They Take Over
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Late last week, toward the tail end of my research for the "Worst Congress Ever" story in the current Rolling Stone , New York congressman Charlie Rangel told me an interesting story.
Rangel recounted an incident in the House in which he went over to say hello to Florida Republican Clay Shaw, who had been ill. Although the two men had been longtime political antagonists, and had frequently ripped each other in public during hearings of the Ways and Means committee (Shaw is the committee's second-ranking Republican, while Rangel is the ranking minority member), they had always maintained a friendly personal relationship. So when Rangel saw that Shaw was back at work, he went over to pay his respects.
"But then a funny thing happened," said Rangel. "When I got back to my seat, a young Democrat [congressman] leaned over to me, and he said, 'What was that all about?' Like there was something wrong with saying hello." Rangel sighed. "Even in our party, for the younger generation of congressmen, this is all they know. That's how bad things are between the two parties."
Rangel was one of a number of people I talked to in congress who spoke wistfully of an age long gone, when congressmen could cross party lines to socialize. But starting in the mid-to-late nineties, things began to change. Among other things, the famed freshman class of 1994 was comprised to a large degree of young congressmen who ran against the institution of congress in their campaigns, promising to shun "Washington politics" and spend more time in their home districts. A new strategy of ironclad party discipline ushered in by Newt Gingrich furthermore decreased opportunities for crossing the aisle on votes; the old days of horse-trading and committee compromises brokered over the weekend on the links of northern Virginia were replaced by party line votes and the three-day work week. A decade later, congress was setting the record for fewest working days ever, and House freshmen don't even shake hands with the guys on the other side of the floor.
"We used to travel the world together," sighed Rangel. "Now we don't even come to Washington long enough to get to know each other."
There is no question that congress has plunged to historic lows in the last six years, rolling up an impressively ugly record of corruption, failing to get much of anything accomplished in the way of major legislation, racking up an $8 trillion debt and provided the ultimate in matador-defense oversight for the most dangerously incompetent president in recent memory. But there's a big question about exactly how much of that is the fault of the Republican party alone.
While the fall from grace happened on the Republicans' watch, the institution in general has seen a massive influx of campaign money and a radical change in the way its members do business since the beginning of the Gingrich years, with lobbyists actually writing the legislation in some cases and members of both parties routinely cramming bills chock full of earmarks and other favors. On the '04 election cycle, the Republican party and its politicians collected an obscene $782 million in hard money contributions, but the Democrats weren't far behind, at $679 million. Those numbers dwarf the amounts seen the last time the Democrats controlled congress - the '93-'94 totals were $244 million and $133 million, respectively.
While congressional Democrats have undoubtedly indulged mightily in the earmark revolution, it's hard to find their fingerprints on the worst abuses of the past decade for the simple reason that the Republicans have done such an incredible job of dominating the legislative process. They have not been targets of corruption because Tom Delay and co. have literally left them with nothing to sell.
"Seriously, one of the reasons you're not seeing Democrats getting indicted in corruption scandals is that we've been out of the loop," says Rangel, laughing but not joking.
What no one in congress knows -- and a lot of staffers I spoke to worried aloud about this -- is if Democrats will be any different in that respect than the Republicans if they win this November. The corruption issue is only part of it. More than anything, a lot of Democratic staffers are worried that ten years or so of having the light shut out on them by the majority, being frozen out of conference committees, having cops called to rouse them out of the library, and being denied the chance to offer even the most harmless amendments -- that all of this will lead to a long, ugly period of payback time.
"I hope we don't do the same stuff," says Jim Berard, a Democratic staffer on the Transportation and Infrastructure.
The upcoming congressional elections are going to important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being the dramatic change in Congress's oversight profile should the Democrats win one or both houses. But I don't see any reason to expect that there will be a dramatic increase in civility or a sudden challenge to corporate influence on the Hill if the Democrats take the House. And as for political partisanship -- who knows, it might just be that politics are different now. There are plenty of people out there who think that a lack of cross-party primary voting (leading to fewer centrist candidates) and the increasing sophistication of party fundraising mechanisms (which allow party leaders to exercise greater discipline of its members) are just contributing generally to a more polarized congress, divided up into two homogenous bodies of legislators utterly hostile to each other. The young Democrat sitting next to Rangel who looks at a Republican like a Crip lining up a Blood might be the future of politics generally.
"If Feingold or whoever is president in '08," says defense analyst and former Senate staffer Winslow Wheeler, "don't expect a sudden flowering of oversight."
Which is not to say the two parties won't work together. They will - -just not on anything constructive. What most people fail to understand about congress is that there have been some highly consistent areas of consensus even in these incredibly contentious past ten years. In the areas in which both parties typically agree, like military spending and giveaways to the more generous donor industries, Democrats and Republicans have worked swimmingly even in the most publicly antagonistic periods of the Bush and Clinton years. They helped each other sign off on the Iraq war and stroke the credit industry with the bankruptcy bill. They cooperated to pass a spate of free-trade agreements, the WTO, the MAI, GATT, and a host of other legislative monstrosities.
Where they couldn't cooperate was in the area of upholding their constitutional responsibilities, and practicing bureaucratic self-defense. The social divide between Republicans and Democrats had to be a big part of the reason congress lacked the institutional stones to really stand up to the president on the torture issue, to fight back when the Vice President ignores a subpoena of the GAO, to demand someone's head when the defense department openly refuses to audit itself. The Republicans in congress have been so busy in the last ten years figuring out ways to shut Democrats out of the process that they forgot how to stop the Executive Branch from giving it to them up the ass. The result is a congress that is not only grossly corrupt and completely beholden to financial interests, but totally castrated in the national political arena, a tawdry little sideshow that drones on idiotically on CSPAN while the White House rules the country more or less absolutely (an additional insult; not only is the congress a disgrace to two millennia of democratic tradition, it's the worst show on television).
Think about it; if there's ever been anything sadder than John McCain "taking a stand" against Bush on the torture bill a few weeks back, have you seen it? I sure haven't. McCain bent over faster than a college student on his first night in Attica. But I wouldn't expect anything better out of the Democrats -- at least not until they show they can act like adults, and not like the hired clowns of their party's financial backers. Until that happens, we can expect more of the same: vicious partisan bitching while the cameras are on, obscene handouts behind closed doors.
"You can either govern or you can get even," says Rangel. "But you can't do both. I hope we make the right choice."