Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Some civics tips from the lame duck

President Bush has a byline today. In a Wall Street Journal guest column, he offers some tips to the new Democratic Congress on how to best govern effectively. One might argue that this gesture is a tad cheeky, given the fact that Bush was humiliated in the ’06 elections, precisely because he and his fellow governing Republicans were judged to be failures at governing effectively. But even a lame duck president retains the power to cajole, even if the prospects for success are diminished.

The problem for Bush is that his Journal piece contains a number of howlers that are guaranteed merely to bemuse the newly empowered Democrats. For instance:

Together, we have a chance to serve the American people by solving the complex problems that many don't expect us to tackle, let alone solve, in the partisan environment of today's Washington. To do that, however, we can't play politics as usual.

One big reason why the GOP coughed up both congressional chambers is because independent swing voters viewed the Bush and the Republican Congress as responsible for “the partisan environment of today’s Washington,” and for the ineffective governance that results from “politics as usual.” As recently as late summer, Bush and his top surrogates were still suggesting that Democratic skepticism about the setbacks in Iraq was tantamount to surrender. And I don’t recall any protests from Bush when the Republicans were busy painting their Democratic opponents as coddlers of Osama bin Laden (as happened to Georgia Senator Max Cleland, after he objected to the proposed employe work rules in the new Homeland Security Department).

I believe that when America is willing to use her influence abroad, the American people are safer and the world is more secure.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. But the election ’06 verdict against Bush was that he mismanaged this important general principle, to disastrous effect. Nobody in Congress, in either party, objects to the notion that America should exercise clout to protect its own people and those of other nations. The problem is how that clout is to be exercised, and as this new exhaustive report illustrates, the incompetence of the Bush administration in Iraq, on multiple fronts, is now beyond empirical dispute. The challenge for congressional Democrats, as they get ready to hold hearings on Iraq, is to demonstrate (if possible) that they would be more effective stewards of that crucial national security principle.

I believe government closest to the people is more responsive and accountable.

This, from the Republican president who has presided over one of the most massive federal government expansions in history – and whose own administration has worked assiduously at eluding accountability, mostly by stiffing Congress. Big example: the true costs in Iraq have kept out of the regular budget process (with the complicity of the governing GOP), thereby minimizing scrutiny. Smaller example: Last winter, after Bush defended his warrantless domestic surveillance program by contending that "appropriate members of Congress have been kept informed," the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service promptly faulted Bush for failing to inform the full membership of the House and Senate intelligence committees – and thereby acting in a manner "inconsistent with the law."

And it’s hard to imagine that the Democrats will take seriously Bush’s newfound devotion to “responsive” and “accountable” government, in light of the fact that he didn’t insist on it before. Best example: Back in the ‘90s, the GOP Congress of that era reportedly took 140 hours of testimony on whether President Clinton had used his Christmas card list to find potential campaign donors. By contrast, in 2004 and 2005, House Republicans took only 12 hours of testimony about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

One important message I took away from the election is that people want to end the secretive process by which Washington insiders are able to slip into legislation billions of dollars of pork-barrel projects that have never been reviewed or voted on by Congress. I'm glad Senator Robert Byrd and Congressman Dave Obey--the Democrats who will lead the appropriations process in the new Congress--heard that message, too, and have indicated they will refrain from including additional earmarks in the continuing resolution for this fiscal year. But we can and should do more. It's time Congress give the president a line-item veto. And today I will announce my own proposal to end this dead-of-the-night process and substantially cut the earmarks passed each year.

Bush underscored this theme this morning, declaring in a statement at the White House that he would like to see the number of earmarks cut in half during 2007. A laudable goal – and very convenient, politically speaking. After saying nothing for years about the burgeoning earmark practices of his Republican brethren (there were 3000 earmarks during the 1996 GOP Congress – and 13,000 in 2006), and after never vetoing a single spending bill that would have at least shelved some of the sweetheart deals, Bush declares that he wants those lawmakers to knock it off – now that the Democrats are running the show.

The Democrats would probably be well advised to curb the practice anyway - in order to mollify independent swing voters, not the president who has suddenly gotten religion on this issue.

The majority party in Congress gets to pass the bills it wants. The minority party, especially where the margins are close, has a strong say in the form bills take.

Just some advice right out of a political science textbook. No doubt those lines are intended as a warning to the ruling Democrats that the GOP should be given “a strong say” in the legislative process – which is a bit rich, considering the track record of recent years. The minority Democrats were systematically excluded from the sausage-making process; often, they never saw substantive legislation until the last moments prior to passage.

As congressional expert Thomas Mann said recently about the GOP Congress, “Regular order - the set of rules, norms and traditions designed to ensure a fair and transparent process - was the first casualty. The results: No serious deliberation. No meaningful oversight of the executive. A culture of corruption. And grievously flawed policy formulation and implementation.”

The Democrats are promising not to exact revenge by humbling the GOP in a similar fashion. As I mentioned this morning on a WHYY radio show, their prime goal is to demonstrate that they can connect with the average voter by governing effectively. They are well aware of this political challenge, in the absence of any civics tips from a lame-duck president.