Some thoughts on the end of this Congress:
Congress did a few good things in its last hours. Chief among them was finally, after years of trying, expanding energy drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, while sharing some of the revenues with the affected states for environmental and hurricane protection. This should have been done long ago. It is good energy policy (more production), good environmental policy (more protection), and good fiscal policy (the new drilling also will bring in more federal revenues in addition to the monies that are shared with the affected states).
Also of crucial importance was passage of a long-awaited and desperately needed fisheries bill that will at least slow down the dangerous overfishing that is destroying our aquatic life. Forget global warming: The real environmental threat to Planet Earth is the declining health of its oceans and seas. Gloriously, the fisheries bill includes a market-oriented, cap-and-trade approach to managing the resources rather than a more heavy-handed, bureaucratic, regulatory one.
Another good thing this Congress did — nearly a full year ago, with almost no fanfare (the lack of fanfare was a HUGE mistake politically) — was to renew (two years late) and update the famous, hugely successful welfare reform of 1996.
Procedurally, the otherwise-frightening Democratic leadership, big liberals all (and thus worthy of plenty of well-aimed criticism in this space in the months to come), have announced some welcome changes for the next Congress, including better guaranteed layover periods for bills so Members and staff can actually read them, more transparency, and a few other things that once were part of the reforms Republicans brought in as part of the Contract With America. Chief among the improvements will be the new, five-day “workweek.” The GOP’s 2 Â½-day legislative week was absurd. Granted, staffs and Members work quite hard all week long regardless, but the job of a legislator is to legislate (or to dispose of legislation with careful consideration). Shorter workweeks don’t cut down the amount of intrusive government; they just promote slipshod writing and consideration of bills that will eventually be passed, and promote the use of mammoth bills in which it is easy to hide horrible pork and other nasty provisions that would not otherwise withstand the light of day.
Rep. Jack Kingston’s (R-Ga.) complaints about how the five-day work-week will affect congressional families are misplaced. He is hired by his constituents to be a legislator. That’s his job. If it takes him away from his family too much, he should move his family to Washington. That’s what almost everybody did anyway until about two decades ago.
The Republican Congress began losing its way not just in the past two or three years, but way back in the mid-to-late 1990s. The biggest turning point came in 1998, when Gingrich and company caved on federal spending in order to secure the votes needed for rules on the impeachment inquiry that weren’t necessary anyway. (The harsher impeachment rules were unnecessary because the rules proposed by Richard Gephardt — about 95% of them, including a deadline by which the inquiry should be completed — were not only quite fair and adequate, but ended up being followed anyway when the inquiry was conducted). The cave-in on spending in 1998 was the first act in an eight-part play wherein Republicans led an orgy of big government.
Meanwhile, from the very start of the majority, Tom DeLay’s attitude was that what was good for the Republican majority was good for the country, and that protecting the majority was therefore of paramount importance. That attitude, though, is what proved self-defeating. It led to a whoredom to K Street and to local pork, and eventually to ethical violations both of process in the House and of substance of many sorts. The better approach, both more noble and more politically smart, would be to recognize that what is good for the country is good for the Republican majority. Good policy makes good politics, not vice versa. Or, as Morton Blackwell teaches in his “The Laws of the Public Policy Process” (number 10), “Sound doctrine is sound politics.” Closely associated with that is number 11: “In politics, you have your word and your friends; go back on either and you’re dead.”
Conservatives in Congress should learn both from the examples of the Gingrich takeover and the Reagan Revolution before it. Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, Bill Paxon, Bob Walker, Bill Archer, Clay Shaw and others did a wonderful job of framing a positive agenda, of taking it to the people and to the House floor both in the minority and the majority, and of keeping the legislative promises they made and abiding by stated legislative principles. (Gingrich eventually went astray tactically and otherwise once in power, but part of that involved being flummoxed by the Master Flummoxer himself, Bill Clinton.) But what the 1990s team (most of them) never mastered, and what the GOP in 2000 utterly failed at, was the Reaganite approach of actually winning Democrats to their side through a combination of carrots, sticks, and communication skills.
A terrific link to the Reagan era, still reasonably young, is California’s Rep. Dan Lungren, an original co-founder of the Conservative Opportunity Society. He’s principled and smart. He ran a bad campaign for governor of California in 1998, but that is the only low mark on an otherwise brilliant career of public service. That’s why it is a shame that he received so few votes in his race for House Republican Conference Chairman. He is a superb resource, and conservatives and Republicans in general (two different things) should make better use of him and appreciate his gifts. If he and Mike Pence and John Shadegg and a few others get together and form, in effect, a new-era Conservative Opportunity Society, they might achieve great things.
Otherwise, good riddance. The congressional branch of the conservative movement is in bad shape right now. It needs to rejuvenate itself. And many of those who are in Congress who have not acted like movement conservatives should go home for Christmas, take stock, cleanse themselves of the ugliness of their own flawed performances, and decide to study the movement’s past successes and emulate them — in short, to join the movement for the first time, as real workers in its vineyards. So as the country says good riddance to the GOP majority, the remaining Republicans in Congress can say good riddance to their compromised former selves and return as principled, savvy, effective conservatives.
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