This year marks Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert’s 20th year in the U.S. House. Had Hastert been able to stay on as speaker for the 110th Congress, he would have tied Massachusetts Democrats Tip O’Neill and John McCormack as the longest-serving House speaker in U.S. history. For anyone who remembers being energized by the Republican Revolution of 1994 and its outsider vs. insider mantle, that historical tidbit is cringe-inducing.
Hastert presided over a Republican-controlled House that each year became more cynical, more spend-happy, and more obsessed with maintaining power. This is no knock on Republican ideology or principles. The idea of a “Republican culture of corruption” rooted in GOP ideology is nonsense. Democrats displayed the marks of corruption quite prominently prior to 1994. The root of the problem, as always, is the corrupting influence of power.
Somewhere along the road from revolution to “permanent majority,” Republican leaders abandoned the core theme that brought Republicans to power: disgust with Washington insider culture.
Republicans might have saved their majority by keeping a single signature promise from 1994. More than any other point in the Contract With America, the promise of term limits showed how serious these reformers were about changing the culture in Washington. Like the capital’s namesake, they were willing to walk away from power if the people entrusted them with it. Yet when the time came, they chose to stay put rather than step down.
That fateful decision is the seed from which the Republicans’ current problems have sprung. (I’ll get to Iraq in a moment.) The Democrats and the mainstream media are not to blame, as Hastert asserted, for the perception that Republicans covered up for Mark Foley. His behavior and the House leadership’s mishandling of it did not occur in a vacuum. It was the last in a year-long series of scandals that gave the impression that Republicans had been corrupted by the lust for power. Consider:
* Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., first elected in 1994, won his last election by 68 percent. He was planning to retire this year, but was convinced to run again by Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, columnist Robert Novak reported. Reynolds, who knew about Foley’s inappropriate e-mails with a House Page, was concerned about Republicans losing the House this fall.
* Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, was first elected in 1994. He won his last election with 66 percent of the vote. In September he admitted selling his influence on Capitol Hill to lobbyists as part of the Jack Abramoff scandal. He refused to resign.
* Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was first elected in 1984. He won his last race with 55 percent of the vote. He resigned after his former chief of staff pleaded guilty to conspiracy and corruption charges as part of the Jack Abramoff scandal. DeLay was indicted for conspiring to illegally use campaign funds in the 2002 Texas House elections. Republicans won and DeLay helped orchestrate a gerrymandering of U.S. House seats that gave Republicans a distinct advantage in 2004. DeLay was indicted by a highly partisan Democrat on what looked to be flimsy charges, and everyone seemed to forget that Texas’ House districts had previously been gerrymandered by Democrats. But the appearance of foul play was strong and DeLay has become a poster boy for Washington corruption.
* Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., was first elected in 1990. He won his last election with 58 percent of the vote. He was caught selling his influence on Capitol Hill to a defense contractor.
Term limits likely would have prevented each of these scandals. Congressmen and staff members serving their final terms in Washington would have little incentive to sell influence to lobbyists. Every one of the Republican House members caught in a corruption scandal would have been ineligible to run this year, and might have been term-limited out of the 108th Congress, depending on when the term limits clock began.
Term limits also would have prevented or mitigated other Republican apostasies, such as the massive expansion of Medicare, the federalization of public education, the gross abuse of the pork barrel process, and the irresponsibly large increases in non-defense discretionary spending.
Each of these violations of principle occurred for one reason: to maintain power. Yet the GOP went down to electoral defeat precisely because of the leadership’s decision to trade ideals for longevity.
I know, term limits might have caused the election of a Democratic majority even earlier. But with term limits in place the Democrats could not have run against Republican corruption, arrogance and incompetence. (OK, maybe incompetence.) They would have had to run on ideas, and in such a contest they probably would have lost.
What about Iraq? Term limits might have left Republicans just insecure enough that party leaders would have demanded greater accountability sooner, and perhaps Bush would’ve reacted. Maybe nothing would have changed and Iraq would have caused a Democratic majority anyway. But I suspect that term limits would have made both Congress and the White House more responsive to, and less insulated from, a people demanding results in Iraq and here at home.
With term limits, there is no such thing as a “permanent majority.” Of course, there is no such thing as a permanent majority anyway. But someone forgot to tell Republican leaders. Their obsession with finding that Shangri-La got them booted from power, and they are still trying to figure out what went wrong. If only they hadn’t been so obsessed with power, they might have kept it.