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Ramstad’s Retirement No Surprise Given Ills Plaguing Congress

Rep. Jim Ramstad’s (Minn.) retirement announcement underscores the dilemma faced by moderate, institutionalist Republicans in the House and the likelihood that their numbers will dwindle even more, to trace element levels, in the 111th Congress. [IMGCAP(1)]

I am admittedly biased because he has long represented the Minnesota district that was my home during many of my formative and college years, but Ramstad is one of the really good guys in the House. He cares about people and about policy.

Of course, there are many reasons for a veteran lawmaker to leave the House. But the more moderate Republicans have gone from majority status — where they frequently had to walk the plank and vote in difficult ways to maintain party unity, where they found major policy made more by leaders with less input from their own ranks, and where they could not get amendments through the Rules Committee — to minority status within both the House and their own party. I expect more like him to consider retirement in the months ahead, and few will be replaced by comparable centrists or institutionalists. That will make governing in the House even more challenging for leaders and for the next president.

It is challenging enough in the 110th Congress. The next several weeks will find leaders preoccupied with their continued difficulty finding a way to express Congress’ unhappiness with the current prosecution of the war in Iraq, while also forced to find a path through the coming nasty confrontation with President Bush over appropriations bills for the fiscal year that begins in less than two weeks. The confrontation is, frankly, largely faux in nature — it is over roughly $22 billion out of a $3 trillion budget, the equivalent of a showdown over 20 bucks out of $3,000. As Democratic leaders rightly point out, the president did not raise a single peep or veto a single bill when Republican majorities in Congress sent him bills that were more than $50 billion over his budget. But this confrontation enables the approval-challenged president to rally his conservative base and to bash an approval-challenged Congress.

Congress would be much better prepared for the confrontation, and likely to win it easily, if it were in a position to send the president each appropriations bill individually and change the subject from profligate spending to specific spending priorities, including bridge safety, port inspection for homeland security, housing and other benefits for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Not many Republicans in Congress want to cast votes against these kinds of programs. But the Senate has not been able to follow the House and get its appropriations bills passed in time.

This is not out of sloth. It is more a reflection of how the Senate does business, amplified considerably this time by the deliberate and largely successful Republican strategy to slow the normally slow Senate down even more by using the filibuster weapon on the widest range of bills, including many with support from more than 60 Senators. In each case, the amount of time it takes to navigate through multiple cloture motions takes time away from other endeavors.

So we are headed for more continuing resolutions, which change the focus back to the broader questions of who is fiscally responsible and how do we avoid a government shutdown. We are not likely to have any major shutdown — Democrats remember well what happened in 1995, and I do not think the president or his chief of staff, Josh Bolten, wants to take on that kind of disruption either at this stage — but dealing with this set of issues and finding a workable strategy and appropriate tactics will soak up even more attention and energy from majority party leaders in the House and Senate.

And that means that the time, attention and energy left for the many other priorities Congress has will be very limited in the coming weeks. The House especially has a very ambitious agenda ahead. It wants to pass major wish-list items, including revisiting the foreign and domestic surveillance law that the two chambers caved on before the August recess, moving toward reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, dealing with energy and climate change, and resolving, at least for the first veto, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The House and Senate also have a significant bill on the table to redress employment discrimination in response to a Supreme Court decision, the alternative minimum tax fix and a host of other issues. And the House needs to act on a plan to revamp its ethics process — something that would be especially noteworthy given the cascading number of scandals. The roll encompasses Members of the other body such as Sens. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), David Vitter (R-La.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and also a number of House Members with problems, including possible indictments, hanging over their heads. There are additional embarrassments, such as the Roll Call report on Democratic Reps. John Murtha (Pa.), Jim Moran (Va.) and Peter Visclosky (Ind.) securing huge specific earmarks in Defense appropriations for clients of a PR firm that gave them all extraordinarily generous campaign donations.

The more difficult and contentious the confrontation over spending, the more Congress will need other trophies to show the American public that it actually is doing something to get the country moving in the right direction. But getting those trophies, especially ones that make it through both chambers and conference committees to land on the president’s desk, will not be easy. And it will require longer hours and more days in session than many Members want.

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

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