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How does Bush get away with treating Congress the way he does?

Since 1994, being a Democratic member of Congress has been a pretty miserable existence. No staff, no supboena power, not even the power to offer an amendment, much less get it voted on. And even the stoic rationale -- "We treated the Republicans pretty poorly ourselves, so they're entitled to some revenge" -- is now many years past its statute of limitations. Some congressional Democrats operate in a frenzy, looking for every opportunity inside or outside the institution to make a point or find an angle, while others float half-dead through the halls, like that co-worker whose job was effectively eliminated years ago but no one ever fired. They can't even quit and get hired as lobbyists any more, thanks to Tom DeLay's "K Street Project" to cut off access to lobbying firms that hire Democrats.

But how can it be any more fun, or seem meaningful, to be a Republican in Congress? Bush treats them exactly as he treated the United Nations: You're either with us or against us. You have to step up to your responsibilities, which we will determine for you. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist might be having a good time, but even he's been cast into the role of Chief Operating Officer in a corporation run by CEO Cheney and Chairman Bush. (With Karl Rove in the Andrew Fastow role of slick CFO.) For all the rest, they might as well not even be there. When they offer major amendments and even win big, such as Rep. Jo-Ann Emerson's proposal on drug importation, or the amendment to lift the Cuba travel ban, or the amendment to reverse the Federal Communications Commission's deregulation plan, management treats it like an entry in the suggestion box, letting it pass but not even disguising their intent to take it out in conference. When it's time for the conference, the circle of people involved gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Now it's two people on the Medicare bill, and two on the energy bill.

The melodrama on the Senate floor, in which the Republicans are staging a made-for-TV counter-fillibuster, complete with "let's go to the mattresses" bravado and cots laid out in the Strom Thurmond room in honor of his brave stand against civil rights, is perhaps a distraction. It is drawing attention away from the fact that the Senate is doing nothing at all, and the House has cancelled all votes this week, while a handful of people and the White House try to work out Medicare, energy, a tax bill, and several appropriations bills. All of them will be presented as faits accompli, to be voted up or down in a day or two before Congress intends to leave for Thanksgiving, not to return until the presidential race is in full swing.

Next week, Bush will either take his U.N. tone from yesterday: "The House and Senate must resolve their differences and get a bill to me. For the sake of America's seniors, I call on the United States Congress to get the job done," or he'll try to set up a situation in which it's the Democrats who seem to be blocking the Medicare bill. On the other legislations, they'll do more or less the the same thing. And those Republicans who wanted something different and thought they had won it fair and square in a democratic process will have only one choice: to vote for or against the bill, to be with the president or against him. And, like Senator Voinovich on the tax cut, they will probably decide to be with him.

How can these Republicans feel it's worth going to work every day? Do they even have an interest in the process they are participating in? Are they just content that behind all the bluster about cutting discretionary spending, Bush has let it rise by 12%, which means plenty of pork for their districts? Are they just marking time and gaining seniority until they can cash out as lobbyists under DeLay's "K Street Project"? Why would anyone put up with this treatment? What are they getting for it?

Congress used to take a certain, excessive, pride in its own prerogatives. Jimmy Carter got off to a bad start in 1977 because he didn't understand or respect those prerogatives. (I think his main offense was that he tried to cut some water projects; the full story is in the wonderful book Cadillac Desert.) Reagan mastered Congress in 1981, but not by bullying them, rather by carefully cultivating different factions among the Democrats and Republicans to fashion majorities.

If a Democrat is elected president next year, he will face an enormous challenge in figuring out how to govern effectively, without the backlash that crippled Clinton after the first year. One secret might be to make these members of Congress both Democrats and Republicans, the ones not named DeLay and Frist, feel like they have a role to play in government. After the way they've been treated for the last three years, and the way the Democrats have been treated for a decade now, it might earn the president their undying loyalty.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 14, 2003 | Permalink


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