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House Members Give New Meaning to ‘Chutzpah’

For the past week I have been in Asia, going from China to Mongolia and then to Japan. I am attending an annual Asia Society conference that brings key leaders from across Asia together with a small number of Americans. I have been a regular attendee for several years and along the way have picked up a good deal of information about this part of the world. And much of it is relevant to Congress as it works on Asia-related issues on several fronts. [IMGCAP(1)]

But it also was a way to step way back from my regular immersion in the day-to-day Congressional jousting and watch the goings-on from afar. My access has been intermittent, but I did get regular e-mail press releases from various Congressional leaders, including a slew from the office of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Let me start with the earmarks. The exemplary definition of chutzpah is the child who murders his parents and then pleads with the court for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan. Maybe that definition can be supplanted.

It has been an absolute hoot to watch the GOP leaders — who on their watch took a minor-league earmark system and deliberately orchestrated its explosion, gleefully presided over the massive expansion of government spending, and gave us examples such as former Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and California Reps. Gary Miller and Ken Calvert using the earmark route to make or supplement their personal fortunes — suddenly become ardent reformers. It has been an equal hoot to watch President Bush, who never raised a single peep when earmarks exploded and never vetoed an appropriations bill during his first six years, suddenly becoming a born-again fiscal watchdog.

But as one who appreciates politics performed at a high professional level, I have to admire their ability to turn on a dime and get away with it — to go on the offensive, gain the support of editorial boards and run rings around the House Democratic leadership. Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has a compelling legislative explanation for why he decided to fold earmarks into the conference process. His decision was not a cynical ploy to keep the spotlight off individual earmarks, but an effort to manage a cumbersome process within tight deadlines. But, boy, was it a political gaffe. Give the minority credit for seizing on it and turning it to their own political advantage.

Republicans in the House have performed at a very high political level since this Congress began, showing no signs of depression at the loss of majority and adapting to minority status easily. Meanwhile, Democrats, even those who spent decades in the majority in a previous era, have had much more trouble adapting to being in charge. Some of this is the arrogance that comes with winning a big election victory. Some comes from the cynical reaction of some Democrats, such as Rep. John Murtha (Pa.), who saw the use of themes like the “culture of corruption” as nothing more than a ploy to win seats. But a good part of the reason for Republican artfulness and Democratic disarray is that Democratic leaders have been trying to live up to their promise to create a more open House with minority participation allowed.

In some cases, the willingness to reach out has had real payoffs, including the quite remarkable bipartisan cooperation on the first gun bill in a long time — a bill in which the Democratic leadership also managed to find common ground with the National Rifle Association (!).

But the good feelings have been fewer than the moments of high tension. Roll Call noted on Monday that many Democrats are furious with their leaders for putting them on the defensive on earmarks. They also are growing uneasy that they may be back on their heels again in coming weeks on ethics reform — if Republicans can somehow gain traction on that issue it will exceed the chutzpah rating on earmarks.

Roll Call gleaned comments from key GOP lawmakers that their strategy will move to another level in coming months, trying to take advantage of Democrats’ willingness to open up the process to real motions to recommit by moving from genuine efforts at constructive amendments to hardball gotcha motions.

Perhaps that talk is locker room bravado; even if it is real, it may be that Boehner, who continues to have regular civil discourse and constructive communication with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), will put the kibosh on those tactics. If he doesn’t, I have no doubt the Democratic leaders will respond by turning the House back to a majority-driven institution with the minority shut out yet again. Nothing would unite House Democrats more than minority hardball — except the GOP sticking it to the majority by exploiting their openness. That would lead Democrats both to change the rules and to exploit them to maximum advantage, norms and propriety aside, in the same way Republicans did in the past.

I hope this doesn’t happen, just as I hope the partisan shots inside the House are contained before they careen out of control. We have a real chance to create a more deliberative, productive and ethical Congress, one that will serve the country well as we try to face huge domestic and international challenges. We have a chance now to make constructive policy advances in education, immigration, energy, the environment, health, trade and many other areas. The failure to do so would reflect badly on both parties and move the country even further from resolving critical matters. That is not what most lawmakers came here to do, and not how they should channel their energies.

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

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