One of the dirty little not-so-secrets of life in Washington these days is that Republicans are running Congress like they own it, with a degree of partisanship and hardball tactics unseen since the days of 19th and early 20th century House Speakers Thomas "Czar" Reed and "Iron Joe" Cannon. In the House, in particular, GOP leaders are systematically denying Democrats (and even moderate Republicans) the opportunity to offer floor amendments or participate in the drafting of legislation.
Meanwhile, Republican Congressional barons are engaging in unusually crude efforts to offer lobbyists a choice between unprecedented access to the legislative process and exile to the outer darkness, based solely on their willingness to swear fealty to the GOP, to the point of firing anyone on their payrolls with any history of Democratic affiliation.
This Republican plantation rule in the House was especially evident in last year's vote on the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. Ignoring the long-established 15-minute time limit on changing votes at the end of the roll call, House GOP leaders, who had clearly lost, kept the vote open for an astounding three hours as they twisted arms and cut deals.
The moment they pulled ahead, of course, the vote was closed and the "victory" announced. Tales of truly appalling GOP vote-buying maneuvers quickly spread around Washington. And one Republican House Member, Nick Smith of MI, soon went public with a report that his party's leaders had threatened to derail his son's campaign to succeed him if he voted wrong, and offered to pony up some dough to help his son if he voted right. (Smith voted "no" anyway.)
On January 20, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of MD wrote a long letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert citing Smith's allegations (which, if true, constituted an accusation of criminal behavior), reminding Hastert of his obligation under House rules to ensure the integrity of Congressional procedures, and asking him to initiate an investigation by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (the formal name for the House Ethics Committee). Hastert ignored the letter, and so far the U.S. Justice Department has also refused to look into the possibility that GOP arm-twisters committed crimes during the Medicare vote.
Hoyer has now gone public with his request to Hastert, and has made it clear that if GOP leaders continue to sweep the matter under the rug, Democrats are likely to make a formal request for an Ethics Committee investigation.
As part of their "everybody-does-it" defense of the toxic partisan atmosphere they have presided over in Congress, unnamed House Republicans have dismissed the Hoyer complaint as an effort to bring back the "ethics wars" of the 1990s, in which both parties in Congress constantly filed ethics charges against the opposition.
But Hoyer's letter to Hastert made it clear the Smith allegations were something very different: "I very strongly believe that we must continue to avoid what some believed was a tit-for-tat use of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. In fact, it should be necessary in only very rare cases for individual members to have to file complaints. But, in instances where credible allegations have been raised in the public domain that directly relate to the integrity of the operations of this House, the Committee should have the duty and the responsibility to fully investigate such allegations to determine for itself the facts and the appropriate disposition."
Hoyer is absolutely right. This controversy isn't about book deals, fundraising tactics, the private behavior of House members, or any of the other tangential subjects that fed the "ethics wars" of the 1990s. It's about bribes and threats and denial of any semblance of open and democratic procedures. If Smith's allegations don't represent the basis for an ethics investigation, then the House might as well abolish the Ethics Committee and the rules it was established to enforce.
We don't know if the heat Hoyer is bringing to this issue will convince Congressional Republicans to support an investigation, or more generally, to impose a few limits on its leaders' roughshod behavior. But if nothing else, it may help shine a light on the GOP's iron rule and partisan abuses in Congress, and make Republicans accept full responsibility for Congress' poor record in addressing the challenges facing the country.
Former House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey of TX got it right in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week: "I'm sitting here, and I'm upset about the deficit, and I'm upset about spending. There's no way I can pin that on the Democrats. Republicans own the town now." And they're running it like a plantation.
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