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The GOP Won Big On Legislation, the Rafael Palmeiro Way

Let’s give credit where credit is due. Congressional Republican leaders had a banner final week. Passage of the energy bill (after years of futility), the highway bill (after years of veto threats) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (after months of dire predictions of failure) was major league. The package let Congress leave town for August with a spring in its collective step, instead of slinking away in embarrassment at continuing gridlock on important issues. [IMGCAP(1)]

These successes tell us several things about politics today. First is to never underestimate the power of a politically savvy president, nor to make linear projections based on popularity and political standing. A smart president can find ways to turn momentum around on a dime, as Bush did with the John Roberts nomination, and change the political dynamic overnight. Of course, the obverse also holds true: When things are going well, never make linear projections that assume they will continue that way.

Second is to never underestimate the grit, savvy and relentlessness of House Republican leaders, including Tom DeLay (Texas) and Roy Blunt (Mo.). DeLay has not been deterred by his ethics problems, which include the continuing clouds represented by the investigation into former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the probe being conducted by Texas-based district attorney Ronnie Earle. DeLay continues to find ways to get the votes to make things happen, and on the energy bill, he finally bowed to reality and dropped the killer provision on MTBE liability that would have derailed the bill yet again.

CAFTA, for its part, owes its passage to Blunt, who worked the issue for months and truly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

The third lesson is not to overplay the implications of these three successes for the future. The energy, highway and free-trade bills all encompass subjects that have a greater degree of bipartisan support than do many issues Congress takes up. More important, they were built on the vast distribution of goodies to a wide array of lawmakers — as large a picnic of pork, and as close to legalized bribery of legislators, as we have ever seen.

The highway bill, we have now learned, uses chicanery and legerdemain to stay within striking distance of the president’s bottom-line number. Anybody who believes that the extra $10 billion will actually not be spent, please raise your hand. Anybody who raises a hand, please get an immediate reality check.

The energy bill is ridiculously pork-laden. Why we need generous tax breaks for producers when oil is $60 a barrel is inexplicable, at least if our explication focuses on substance and not political dealing.

And CAFTA required more grease and pork to buy votes than any omnibus tax bill we have seen, which is saying something. But when we get to bills that require pain and not pleasure or pork, like immigration and Social Security, the difficulty of passage will rise sharply.

Fourth is to note again how far the House Democrats are from the disciplined minority Newt Gingrich led in 1993-94. Take CAFTA. Put substance aside; I believe that passage of CAFTA was a good thing, because the political costs in terms of our relations with our neighbors far outweighed any economic cost to us. But in political terms, it was Democratic votes that made passage of CAFTA possible. Without those votes, the Republicans might have had to hold the roll call open for three hours, or days, and might still have failed.

Had CAFTA failed to pass, GOP leaders in the House would have had to confront the reality that they can no longer count on perfect party unity, and they would need to consult Democrats and sometimes accommodate them. Instead, the lesson Republican leaders have taken is that they can continue to shut out the minority, use closed rules and manipulation of the process, turn only to their Members for substantive input and still prevail.

This is not the doing of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): She has done everything possible to make that case to her Members. Democrats are simply undisciplined, shortsighted, or, in a few instances, greedy enough to make it difficult for her to get the kind of unity that Gingrich commanded in the first two Clinton years — a unity that contributed mightily to the Republicans’ resounding success in the 1994 elections.

One other lesson/observation about the final days before the August recess. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had another, less noticed, success: getting the expedited elections bill that passed the House and was going nowhere in the Senate attached to an appropriations bill, and prevailing on the Senate Majority Leader and other Senators to keep it in the conference over the objections of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Now the House has its fig leaf enacted to say that it has responded to the continuity of Congress issue.

Of course, the London bombings underscore how vulnerable we continue to be to a terrorist attack. Another horrific threat was raised in a recent Washington Post editorial by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), namely trains carrying hazardous materials through Union Station that, if bombed, could release deadly chlorine gas and devastate the House and Senate, not to mention the surrounding neighborhoods.

But the expedited elections bill was a joke — a bad one. It was enacted with virtually no deliberation; was slapped together while ignoring the constructive advice of election officials and experts while refusing to consider any reasonable amendments; and included no input by the Senate. Then it was passed as substantive legislation with no relevance to appropriations … on an appropriations bill. What a way to legislate!

Every rule and norm of a deliberative legislative process, and every rule and norm of reasonable ways to legislate, was violated along the way. This was the Rafael Palmeiro theory of governing: Use any illicit or questionable substance to get your accomplishments and the ends will justify the means. Hastert and the bill’s author, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), won — but in a fashion that would nauseate anyone who respects Congress and appreciates deliberation as an essential tool of democratic governance. In the meantime, the vulnerability of Congress and our constitutional framework to an attack remains high, and the prospect of a country without a Congress for months after an attack tangible. Yuck.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.