Thursday, April 28, 2005
DeLay of Game
This is already the second back-track on changing rules of an ethical nature in barely five months. Republicans originally tried to end the policy of forcing conference leaders and committee chairs to step down if they came under indictment. That rule was originally adopted as a response to Democrats in the early '90s just standing by when former House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski managed to keep his chairmanship even while indicted. The change was contemplated from fear that a Texas prosecutor was preparing to indict Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
The gentleman from Texas may or not be guilty of violations of House ethics rules and perhaps even the laws of the land. These are facts to be determined over the next few months. However, one thing is quite clear: The House has allowed DeLay's situation to sully its own reputation. In doing so, it may also have helped undermine the very moral sense of purpose that propelled the GOP into the majority a decade ago.
The document that helped produce that majority, the Contract With America, was not merely a simple laundry-list of legislation that was to be passed by House Republicans within a certain amount of time (10 bills within 100 days). As it stated in its preamble:
As Republican Members of the House of Representatives and as citizens seeking to join that body we propose not just to change its policies, but even more important, to restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives.
That is why, in this era of official evasion and posturing, we offer instead detailed agenda for national renewal, a written commitment with no fine print.
Republicans realized that it's not just simple ideology that bonds voters to given politicians and parties. There have to be "bonds of trust." Voters will forgive decisions that they might not agree with, just as long as they believe that their elected representatives were coming from a position of honesty and integrity. If voters start thinking that politicians are more interested in protecting their own hide rather than keeping good faith with the public, then the bonds of trust will dissipate.
Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey recognized that the arrogance displayed by Democrats, growing out of forty years of uninterrupted rule, was not limited just to how they treated the minority party. It extended to legislative decisions as well. Thus, in addition to the language promising to restore trust between "the people and their elected leaders," the Contract's preamble included eight specific measures -- to be voted on the first day of the new majority -- that spoke to cleaning up the House's own "house."
The first item was to "require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress." Others included cutting the number of committees and placing term limits on chairmanships. Again, Rostenkowski had become the poster child for ethical irresponsibility of the Democrats. Incoming Republicans wanted to demonstrate that not only were they different from the previous regime -- they were humble enough not think that they should live under different rules than the true "bosses" who gave them the responsibility of running the House -- the American people.
That's what is so disturbing about the House behavior of the last few months. Just the attempt to remove the indictment sanction on a leader sent a poor signal. Unilaterally changing the criteria for how a case is to be judged -- while the Majority Leader is under a cloud of suspicion -- is even worse.
Retreating to the status quo ante makes the party now looks, not principled, but scared and embarrassed that it got caught with its hands in the cookie jar. Republicans might assume that the public isn't paying attention. Or, they might assume that because all of this is going on more than a year before the elections, that they don't have to worry about electoral ramifications.
That may or may not be true. However, it's not just next year that Republicans have to worry about. It's this year too -- and this year's agenda. Why should the public trust the GOP's policies, if they doubt the basic integrity of the institution proposing those policies. Furthermore, when George W. Bush calls Tom DeLay an "effective" leader, one can only hope that he is condoning the House Republican "effective" ceding of the "reform" banner that the party flew proudly for ten years.
It's an open question now whether they will be able to raise it once again.