Status Quo Republicans Gambling With History

Washington smarties will tell you that only 15 House seats are ever truly in play every two years, thanks to gerrymandering. This is the world, comfortable and eternal, that all politicians want (even politicians in the minority, though they would like to be in the majority, prefer stasis to uncertainty). But an old friend, who is smarter than all the smarties, told me not to believe in the Nirvana of gerrymandering. “When the American people want to move, they will just go,” my old friend said.

John Shadegg (R.-Ariz.) agreed with Old Friend when he entered the contest for House Majority Leader. When Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.) stepped down, pending investigation into his staff’s connections with crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the instant front-runner to replace him was House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.), with John Boehner (R.-Ohio) running second. Mr. Shadegg thought, however, that both men were too much a part of the Republican old guard to represent a clean break. They were a new dab of styling gel, when what the G.O.P. needed was a makeover—or, better, decapitations and fresh heads. But Mr. Blunt continues to lead, as he has from the beginning, which suggests that House Republicans think the conventional wisdom on gerrymandering is correct. For their sakes, they better be right.

This is the same Republican Party that rose to majority status in 1994, thanks to the Contract with America. The Contract, child of Newt Gingrich, pledged among other things that House Republicans would introduce a balanced-budget amendment. They did; it died in the Senate. They next vowed to balance the budget by legislative means. Their stubbornness caused the federal government to shut down in the fall of 1995. During the crisis, President Bill Clinton ordered a pizza, and the rest is history.

Very ancient history—for who could imagine the present-day House Republicans crossing the street, much less shutting down the government, in order to prevent it from spending more than the I.R.S. takes in? The truth is, time corrupts, even in the House. Senators are Homer’s Olympians, translated into prose—powerful, scheming and horny, without grace or beauty. Those demigods were on display during the Alito hearings. But even members of the House, in their shuffling hundreds, feel the pleasure of their berths, and have egos determined to retain them. It is a world built for lobbyists.

Jack Abramoff’s specialty was lobbying for Indian casinos. This is an industry that has grown up in the lifetimes of the youngest of us. In 1988, Indian gambling earned $100 million; today, it earns $16 billion. When a pot of gold gets that big, everyone, from old slots addicts cashing in their Social Security checks to Congressmen, wants to touch it, either to fill it or to empty it. Well have Indians avenged themselves on us. We fought them, gave them smallpox, and wept over them. “In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong,” wrote James Fenimore Cooper; “and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.” Cheer up, it’s morning again, and you can see the first croupiers of the wise race of Mohegan Sun.

Most Congressional boodle has nothing to do with Indians. The symbol of Congress’ extravagance has become the “bridge to nowhere”—the $223 million span that was supposed to connect Ketchikan, Alaska, to Gravina Island. Now it’s probably unfair to call this project a bridge to absolutely nowhere, since Ketchikan has 8,000 souls, and Gravina Island has 50. There is also property on Gravina Island, including a 33-acre former mining parcel part-owned by Nancy Murkowski. Ms. Murkowski happens to be the wife of Governor Frank Murkowski, and the mother of Senator Lisa Murkowski (both Republicans). Not an Indian among them, unless the last of the Mohicans went to Poland.

Senator Murkowski defended herself gamely against the charge of conflict of interest in an interview last fall with a local newspaper, calling the 33 acres “worthless.” It would probably be worth more if you could drive to it, but let’s spot her a point: Her mom owns only one quarter of it; Murkowski-dom probably wouldn’t have made its fortune from it (unless the Inuit bought it for a casino). But then she went on: “You look at [all] the projects that we, the [state’s Congressional] delegation, are working on and, hey, it’s not just Frank and Nancy and the Murkowskis that will see a benefit … it’s every Alaskan.”

This is the heart of the matter. The worst of Congressional irresponsibility is not that people profit in illegal ways; it is that Congressmen, quite legally, funnel nickels and dimes—millions of them—to their constituents. In the short run, each transaction is rational—for the Congressman and his constituents, obviously, but even for the public as a whole, since benefits are large and concentrated while costs are small and diffused. We notice the damage only when we add up the costs generated by everyone and find that Congress has put us in the position that the Republican Party, 12 years ago, thought was alarming.

Will the Republican Party recover some of that sense of alarm? What will happen if it doesn’t? More than the budget rides on their actions. If the Democrats should win back the House in November, they will certainly schedule a vote to impeach President Bush. Some will vote yes because they are Iraq defeatists, like Representative John Murtha; others will vote yes out of sheer partisan tit-for-tat, and as a pre-election gift to Senator Hillary Clinton. Perhaps the full House will vote to impeach, in which case—though it is inconceivable that the Senate would vote to convict—terror dervishes around the world will be heartened.

Iraqis should consider well the system they have embraced. I do not speak as a cynic— it sure beats being fed through a shredder. But one should take up democracy, as one enters into marriage, aware of all its peculiarities and pitfalls.