Expectations for the Congressional leadership have reached such a dismal level that they can now get away with almost anything, while the Washington press corps yawns. So House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his genial instrument, Speaker Dennis Hastert, are free to repeal inconvenient reforms, junk previous commitments and consolidate their power without worrying that anyone will hold them accountable.
That old Contract with America-the document signed in September 1994 by nearly every House Republican, including the present leadership-has been relegated to the dustbin of history, along with its author, Newt Gingrich. The “contract” turns out to have been the same kind of reliable guarantee that comes with a TV mail-order potato-peeler or an Internet investment scam.
Remember term limits? What that meant was term limits for Democrats. It is true that Mr. Gingrich’s own members placed an informal limit on his leadership career by defenestrating him before he could complete a third term as Speaker. But as they opened the new session, Mr. Hastert’s members repealed the provision that would have limited the Speaker to eight years in power.
That rule would have brought the Speaker’s tenure to an end in about three years, diminishing his clout rapidly between now and then as he became a lamer and lamer duck. Declining power for Mr. Hastert would also mean the same for Mr. DeLay, who evidently doesn’t dare risk running for Speaker himself.
Meanwhile, they kept term limits on committee and subcommittee chairmen, a rule that enhances the power of the leadership to reward members-and to punish them. That’s what Mr. DeLay did the other day by blocking Christopher Shays, the independent-minded Connecticut Representative who annoyed his party’s leaders by winning the fight for campaign-finance reform, from assuming the chairmanship of the House Government Reform Committee.
Term limits are a stupid way to operate any institution, as most of the elected officials who promise to observe them find out soon enough. Sooner or later, such a limitation on the House Speaker was certain to be removed.
More troubling, if utterly unsurprising, is Mr. DeLay’s decision to strip away certain ethics provisions passed by the Republicans after they took over Congress in 1995. Those reforms addressed real issues of corruption and complacency that had arisen under the Democratic majority after four unchallenged decades.
Last week, the leadership took the first step toward removing the 1995 ban on gifts from lobbyists, by allowing them to cater inexpensive meals to Congressional offices. The so-called “pizza rule” won’t lead to widespread corruption, unless House staffers can be bought for a slice and a Coke. But the Republican chairman of the ethics committee thinks that having lobbyists feed staffers looks bad, and he’s right.
Still worse is another rules revision that will allow members to accept expenses-paid trips to “charitable” events at lavish golfing resorts-which will, of course, be subsidized by corporations and trade lobbies that want to influence legislation. As the venerable nonpartisan watchdogs at Common Cause complained, these changes also were made without any semblance of public scrutiny or debate, in part because mention of them was buried by the national media.
If these revisions seem insignificant, the House leaders have also dumped a far more meaningful relic of the Gingrich era. Among the most advertised features of the Contract with America was the Republican promise of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, from which an actual balanced budget was supposedly certain to follow.
Having briefly experienced a balanced budget-and, in fact, a year or two of budget surplus on paper, at least-Mr. DeLay and Mr. Hastert no longer think those promises are worth keeping. Not content with plunging the nation’s accounts back into deficit with the Bush administration’s spend-and-cut-taxes program of the past two years, the House bosses are hell-bent on additional tax cuts, faster tax cuts and more regressive tax cuts.
Did the Congressional Republicans ever believe in balancing the federal budgets? They did back when that provided an excuse for cutting food stamps and other aid to the needy. They don’t now, when fiscal responsibility would inhibit their compulsion to reward “middle-class” families in the top 1 percent of the population.
The result could be red ink returning to the high tide of the Reagan-Bush era. Mr. DeLay says he regards the $674 billion package of tax cuts proposed by the White House as perhaps not quite lavish enough. Asked whether he might propose an alternative with a trillion-dollar price tag, he replied, “Who knows?”
To listen to Mr. DeLay explain himself is to feel a sense of foreboding. “Presidents from Coolidge to Kennedy to Reagan have … repeatedly demonstrated that cutting taxes actually swells the flow of revenue into the federal government.” Did he really say Coolidge?