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Intelligence Misery

As our readers know, Roll Call customarily doesn’t editorialize about the merits of legislation, but rather about the way Congress behaves. So we won’t weigh in on the specific disputes holding up passage of the intelligence reform bill. But one thing is clear: It’s been handled miserably by the House.

In the Senate, the measure was developed on a bipartisan basis by the Governmental Affairs Committee, which never broke into party caucuses. It passed the Senate by a margin of 96-2.

In the House, on the other hand, the basic bill was developed — as is now regular practice in that chamber — on a Republicans-only basis, with Democrats systematically cut out of the action. The original House bill, providing for a weak national intelligence director and stiff anti-immigration provisions, passed by 282-134, with just two GOP dissenting votes and 125 Democrats in opposition.

A House-Senate compromise has been worked out that leans strongly toward the Senate version. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the ranking member of Governmental Affairs, predicts that it would garner more than 90 votes in the Senate. It also would command a large majority in the House — but that would require the GOP leadership to depend on Democrats for a majority.

And this, as a matter of dubious principle, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has been unwilling to countenance. The bill has been hanging fire since Nov. 20, when it developed in a House GOP Conference session that a majority of Republicans opposed the conference report, siding with Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.). Hastert has been holding up a vote while President Bush tries to convince House Republicans to fall into line.

The whole performance begs a large question: Should the House be representative of all the people, or just of its majority party? It’s not just a question for the GOP. Democrats ruled arbitrarily too — maybe more so — when they were in control prior to 1995, limiting debate and disregarding minority opinions. Enraged by such actions, the Republicans pledged that things would be different if they ever gained the majority. But they didn’t keep their promise. Now Democrats are railing — and promising.

Hastert reportedly said at a Library of Congress symposium on the Speakership last year that he views himself as the leader of the Republican majority, and of a majority of that majority, rather than of the whole House. We fully support the idea of majority rule — it makes the ruling party accountable for its actions. But Hastert’s attitude amounts to thinking that America has a parliamentary system in which the majority party rules more or less absolutely. Surely that’s not what the Framers intended.

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