Gullible voters keen to treat the onset of the 2008 primary season as a hale sign of life in the American democratic system had best avert their gaze from Capitol Hill this week. For as Congress winds down the year’s business with earmark-laden appropriations bills and unsightly cave-ins to Bush prerogative after Bush prerogative, the governing metaphor is not the campaign scene’s notorious horse race—something that, for all its by-the-numbers familiarity, at least connotes forward motion. The most fitting template for Congress, rather, is the La Brea Tar Pits—a place where doomed life-forms absently topple into the sticky abyss, with only their outward frames preserved for puzzled generations centuries down the line.
The Democrats now masterminding the 110th Congress, after all, stunned observers last November by sweeping into majorities in both the House and Senate on vows to end the dismal U.S. engagement in Iraq and bring desperately needed honesty and transparency to government. Little more than a year later, Nancy Pelosi’s House and Harry Reid’s Senate have, after much righteous huffing and puffing, rolled over on all the White House’s war-funding measures, failing to approve any timeline for a troop withdrawal from Iraq. The latest Congressional timeline appeared under the magisterial title, “The Orderly and Responsible Iraq Redeployment Appropriations Act.” But after the House passed it, the Senate proved neither orderly nor responsible enough to defeat a cloture motion. So after entertaining more than a dozen legislative proposals for exit strategies and timelines, the Democratic 110th has functioned in exactly the same fashion as its Republican predecessors—the only difference being that the G.O.P. majorities moved war-funding measures with the alacrity of short-order cooks, whereas Ms. Pelosi’s Democrats seem to favor the slow food movement.
By her own admission, Ms. Pelosi underestimated how deeply her Republican colleagues were invested in the continued occupation of Iraq. At a recent press conference, the speaker marveled that they hadn’t “shared the view of so many of our people that we needed a new direction in Iraq”; that in fact Republicans “like” the war, politically speaking—and so she’s reluctantly concluded “that this is not just George Bush’s war. This is the war of Republicans in Congress.”
As is typical of Beltway news cycles, Ms. Pelosi’s comments sparked a meaningless furor over the idea of her loyal opposition liking the war. And so—fortunately for her—she had to issue a mild clarification, permitting the whole thing to blow over before anyone gave much thought to how dunderheaded the substance of this appraisal was. Surely no other recent speaker assumed, coming into power, that the majority party would automatically win consent from the new minority party solely on the grounds that “so many of our people” would nudge them that way. How had Ms. Pelosi been occupying herself in 2002, when Karl Rove’s campaign machine used the mythic threat of a WMD-armed Iraq to cruise to historic pickups in a midterm cycle? Had she napped through the gruesome 9/11 mournography of the G.O.P.’s 2004 New York convention?
Of course “this is the war of Republicans in Congress”; it’s how many of them managed to hang on to their jobs. Expecting that dynamic to magically change based on the ’06 midterm results is tantamount to making the voters do the Democratic leadership’s job. Apparently, Ms. Pelosi thinks that the shiny ’06 mandate functions as a get-out-of-conference card that will spare them the hard work of arm-twisting and deal-brokering to win some progress toward a pullout—and facing up to the hard political consequences of getting an actual troop withdrawal on track. Even Dick Cheney, who for all his executive branch blood lust remains a close student of House power plays, recently told a trio of interviewers from the Politico that he’d been astonished at the failure of the Democrats to wield any “big stick” in the Iraq funding battles. “I’m frankly surprised at why, after all of the efforts they’ve made to try to hook up various provisions on Iraq to the spending bill, they’ve been unsuccessful.”
Meanwhile, as major party leaders have been professing all this surprise at each other, the all-too-familiar appropriations on the Hill grind on as they always have. Yes, Congress did enact ballyhooed new disclosure rules to bring more of the grisly practice of earmarking—i.e., the last-minute introduction of parochial spending projects likely to enhance an incumbent lawmaker’s reelection prospects into the parliamentary clusterfuck known as the appropriations process. But that’s done nothing to slow the brisk trade in earmarking—especially for appropriations subcommittee lords such as Pennsylvania Democrat Jack Murtha and Democrats who narrowly took seats from the G.O.P. side last cycle. As my CQ colleague Jonathan Allen has reported, the Appropriations Committee fielded more than 33,000 earmarks request from lawmakers this year. But even Congress can only sluice so much pork into awaiting home-district barrels; the Appropriations Committee only summoned the scratch for one-fifth of this year’s earmark requests. When the House Appropriations chairman made the impolitic suggestion of meeting the White House’s proposed discretionary spending cap of $933 billion by simply pulling the plug on all pending earmarks, he was all but hooted off the stage—by Congressional leaders of both parties. Indeed, just as the appropriations melee was heaving into its final phase, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell—a lawmaker who’s never met an industry PAC or special-interest boondoggle he didn’t adore—was already airing campaign ads in his home state of Kentucky touting his prowess in pulling down some $200 million in earmarks.
Mr. McConnell’s chief enforcer, the outgoing minority whip, Trent Lott, tried a bit more subtly to depict Obey’s proposal as an affront to singing-senator-style chamber decorum. “All it would do is make people mad and delay everything,” Mr. Lott pouted. And Ms. Pelosi is falling incoherently into line as it seems only she can. As Congress prepared on Monday to hit most every item on the White House’s wish list—including a likely Senate amendment for $70 billion in unconditional war funding, the speaker burbled that the appropriations package “will meet the standards we talked about, which is the president’s number, our priorities.” In other words: Whatever, we got the system juiced for the next election cycle, and put off any real fiscal reckonings into the next fiscal year.
And they say that bipartisanship is dead?