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With Few Exceptions It’s Been a Bad Stretch For Bush, Congress

I want to start on a high note because it will all be downhill after that. This past weekend included a small celebration for Sander and Vicki Levin’s 50th anniversary. It is a blessing when any couple manages to make it to the 50-year mark. This one was a particular pleasure. Of all the people I know in Congress, no one exceeds Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) in the combination of passion for social justice, desire to do good things for the country, knowledge about key issues and simple human decency. He is a role model as a lawmaker and a person — and he married up. [IMGCAP(1)]

Of course, there are lots and lots of Members of the House and Senate who are great people, and the qualities that Levin has are not in any way limited to one party or one point of view. But we somehow seem to be at a point in our history and development where our political leaders keep making the sum less than the whole of the parts.

Last week proved that in spades. Let’s start with the continuing wrangling over government spending. Even as President Bush vows to veto a variety of appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began Monday, he was sending up yet another “emergency” appropriation request for the ongoing wars — a total of $190 billion for this year for Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq may be a crisis, but it is not an emergency — defined as something unanticipated, like a hurricane, that was not funded through the regular process. Virtually all the spending requested in this “emergency” bill has been long anticipated. That is true of the overwhelming majority of the taxpayer dollars that have gone to funding the war — most through the backdoor of supplemental appropriations.

Why? So that funding for the war would not be highlighted for the public, and so that funding for the war would not be integrated into a budget where everything else is subject to scrutiny and choices. Of course, funding our troops in the field is not the same as funding a community center, highway or student loan. But the cost of the war — and whether some of those costs should be borne by shifting priorities within the Defense Department — should be front and center in the debate of the nation’s actions and priorities. The way this war has been funded by the Bush White House has been fundamentally dishonest and shameful. And now, to draw a sharp line in the dust over $22 billion in domestic discretionary spending — two-thirds of which is to make up for inflation — while refusing still to request war funding on a straightforward basis is just plain wrong.

So much for the White House. Now on to Senate Democrats, who shamefully caved under pressure from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and allowed an unprecedented pass in the Rules and Administration Committee to Hans von Spakovsky’s nomination to the Federal Election Commission. Von Spakovsky was a central player in the politicization of the voting rights section of the Justice Department, engineering a departmental approval of a terrible Georgia voter ID law over the overwhelming opposition of career professionals in his own section. His appointment to the FEC was challenged publicly by an array of people who had worked with him at Justice. But Senate Democrats jettisoned principle to protect the fate of their own picks for the FEC.

McConnell pointed out to them, correctly, that there had long been an “understanding” among Senators that each side could pick with impunity its own members of the FEC. That understanding is obnoxious and outrageous — it treats the FEC not as an independent regulatory commission but as the personal plaything of the two parties, joined together — as so often on the Ethics Committees — in an unholy alliance to protect their own interests over that of the public. It has worked more often than not, hamstringing the FEC and making it a weak body unable to act reasonably or forcefully in many areas.

Any Democrat who now fails to demand a separate, accountable vote on von Spakovsky, who accepts this notion of a devil’s bargain between the parties on the nation’s election watchdog, has no standing to complain about the politicization of the Justice Department.

As for Senate Republicans, their handling of the Larry Craig (R-Idaho) case continues to rain shame down on them. As Craig continues to maintain his seat in the Senate, Republicans are demanding, or at least threatening to demand, an open hearing on his case in the Ethics Committee. Open hearings in this committee are virtually unknown. The precedent, many have said, was set when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) demanded an open hearing some years ago on then-Sen. Bob Packwood’s (R-Ore.) alleged sexual harassment.

Of course, the Packwood case involved allegations that he had forced himself (or tried to) on various women, including instances in his Senate office — a far cry from what Craig did. And of course there has been no demand for any ethics hearing, public or private, on other Senators with their own serious ethical challenges. This is clearly a threat to air publicly questions not just about his behavior in a Minneapolis airport restroom but about Craig’s sexuality, to force him to resign now. It is blackmail, and it is repugnant.

While I am on the subject of Senate Republicans, their continuing successful efforts to block electronic disclosure of Senate campaign financing also is outrageous and wrong-headed. Shame on Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), part of a rogue’s gallery of Republican Senators using phony excuses to keep the public from knowing in a timely fashion about their campaign numbers.

On to House Democrats. Last week, a bill on flood insurance came to the floor with Republican amendments shut out from consideration, to the chagrin of, among others, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). The relations between the parties on the House Rules Committee have grown more and more rancorous and may have something to do with this rule — it followed an incendiary attack on Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) by the House Republicans, and a series of particularly acrimonious exchanges between Slaughter and a Republican member of the committee, Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas). But I don’t care what the reason.

What a majority party has to do if it is going to make the House operate in a reasonable and fair fashion — even as it has to act at times as a majority, and even as it operates in a vicious and difficult atmosphere — is to miss no opportunity to open up the House to substantive amendments when the bills are not top-level priorities for the majority. The majority needs to bend over backward to ignore taunts, to give ample time for debate to leaders on the other side, to err on the side of more openness. Republicans ignored these principles with increasing arrogance in the 109th Congress, and they paid for it handsomely. There is a lesson to be drawn here, and it is past time for the leaders in the House majority to take it to heart.

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

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