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WHY THE REPUBLICANS CAN'T GET ANYTHING DONE
Gary D. Halbert
Dec. 13, 2005
I know that many of you, like myself, follow politics and related issues closely. Like me, you have probably been surprised at the utter failure of President Bush’s second term legislative agenda. People ask me the following all the time: Aren’t Republicans the majority in BOTH houses of Congress; don’t they control ALL the committees; and don’t they determine and set the agenda? The answer is obviously yes, yes and yes!
So why then hasn’t President Bush been able to get anything done in his second term? A lack of leadership is usually the first thing that comes to mind when reviewing the causes of the Bush legislative failure. That is certainly a part of it, and you may recall that I have criticized President Bush and the GOP leadership numerous times in past E-Letters. But blame can’t simply be laid at the feet of George Bush, Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert.
The bottom line is that while the Republicans do hold a majority in both houses of Congress, the fact is that “conservatives” do NOT hold a majority in both houses. There are quite a number of so-called “moderate” (read: liberal) Republicans in the House and Senate that do not support President Bush’s agenda, and probably should move to the Democrat Party.
A new article by Paul Weyrich, CEO of the Free Congress Research & Education Foundation, and long-time champion of conservative causes, does an excellent job of bringing the failure of Bush’s second term into specific focus. Weyrich provides us with the core reason for our legislative malaise in his article entitled “A Leadership Lacking Spirit.”
In this week’s E-Letter, I’m going to summarize Weyrich’s latest article, and provide some additional insights of my own as to why I think the conservative legislative agenda has been stalled in Congress. What you read below may help you understand the lack of progress on key conservative issues in Washington.
Editor’s Note: While I am not a member of any political party, and have never been, I am a “conservative” (i.e. – on the right) on most issues. So read on with that in mind.
The Conservatives Are In Control, Right?
Many conservatives felt that with Bush in the White House in 2000, and with the overwhelming wins by Republican congressional candidates in 2002 and 2004, we would usher in an era long dreamed of by those of us on the right. It was an opportunity to advance the conservative agenda: 1) above all, to rein in government spending; 2) to continue Ronald Reagan’s vision of limited government; and 3) subsequently, to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent.
But as we all know, none of that has happened. And much has happened on President Bush’s watch that conservatives abhor. More on that later.
Paul Weyrich puts it like this:
“When President Bush won re-election by a healthy margin and when Republicans increased their margins in both Houses of Congress, expectations ran high. Conservatives believed that, at last, good things could be done by the Congress and these good things surely would be signed by the President. The elected Leadership in both Houses at the beginning of the 109th Congress was the most conservative it had been since the 1920s.”
However, ever since control of Congress passed from the Democrats to the Republicans, it seems that conservative issues have been stalled, stymied or even defeated outright. Many, myself included, have scratched our heads and wondered why such issues as the Education Bill, the Farm Bill, steel tariffs and the Medicare prescription drug program have sailed through Congress, while other issues such as limited government, spending cuts and Social Security reform hit a wall.
To this question, Weyrich offers a simple answer: Liberal Republicans.
No, Liberal Republicans Are In Control
The US House of Representatives is comfortably in the hands of the GOP. However, that is not to say that it is safely in the hands of conservatives. It is not. Weyrich goes on with how the liberal Republicans in the House have disrupted a great deal of legislation. He writes:
“Liberal Republicans have tremendous leverage over the rather Conservative [House] Leadership. They are the margin of victory or defeat. A majority, 218 votes if all 435 Members vote, is required to pass legislation in the House. Republicans hold 232 seats. There are anywhere from 22 to 26 Liberal Republicans depending upon the issue. That means that the Leadership could have between 206 and 210 votes to pass measures but would be short of the majority required.”
“Unless Liberal Republicans get their way they won't go along with the Leadership, not even to vote for bills aimed at keeping the government going. Thus the House Leadership found itself on the short end of votes when the FY 2006 Labor-HHS Appropriations Bill was up for consideration. All 201 Democrats voted against the Bill. The GOP Leadership thought it had the votes but when the roll call was taken the Leadership was a few votes short. The vote was a tremendous embarrassment for the GOP Leadership.”
“Likewise, the Deficit Reduction Act, a reconciliation bill, had to be pulled. First, Liberal Republicans demanded that Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and offshore drilling for oil and natural gas be stricken from the Bill. The Leadership reluctantly agreed because without the votes of Liberal Republicans the Bill could not be passed. When the Leadership pulled those items from the Bill it angered Members of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the caucus of House Conservatives. The RSC Members threatened to bring down the Deficit Reduction Bill, which the Leadership pulled from the calendar so as not to cause the Bill to be defeated .”
Surprised? Sadly, we shouldn’t be. While the more conservative elements of the GOP are firmly in control of the House Leadership, they are frequently forced to compromise on conservative ideas in order to appease the more liberal members of their own party.
The Democrats have frequently whined about how the Republican leadership holds votes open longer than the allotted time. The reason for this is clear: they don’t have enough Republican votes to pass their agenda , so they have to resort to arm twisting, compromise, or remove the bill from the floor to avoid embarrassment.
So the situation is that, while Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives, conservatives obviously do not. Americans who assumed that they elected conservative candidates simply because they were Republicans are now learning that they may have elected foxes to guard the henhouse, in some cases.
What About Senate Republicans?
In the Senate, liberal Republicans are more likely to do their dirty work through committee. Due to their current 55-45 margin, the GOP commands a two-vote advantage on each committee. This, by itself, is excellent news, but Weyrich points out that there are at least seven liberal Republicans in the Senate, and they sit on virtually every important committee. This situation alters the voting landscape dramatically, as Weyrich explains:
“The Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, is comprised of ten Republicans and eight Democrats. If one Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee were to oppose a judicial nominee, the vote would be 9-9, which usually means the nomination would fail.”
Through the use of powerful committee assignments, liberal Republicans are able to influence legislation in an environment that is out of the view of most Americans. While most committee meetings are open to the public, few people ever take them in. Weyrich provided an example of this tactic in the person of Senator Olympia Snowe, as follows:
“Liberal Republicans usually operate the way Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME) did in the Senate Finance Committee. Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-IA) was attempting to move legislation which would have made President George W. Bush's tax cuts permanent. Senate Finance Committee Democrats, who believe tax cuts would give them fewer dollars to spend on federal programs, opposed the Grassley Bill. Snowe voted with the Democrats and Grassley was forced to postpone consideration of the measure and to negotiate with Snowe.”
Imagine this scenario replayed in other committees and you begin to get an idea of the gravity of the problem. This is the type of political gamesmanship you would expect from the opposition party, not the party in power. Right? Well this is a portrait of the sad state of affairs in Washington today. The will of the people, the will of the party is meaningless. It has all been reduced to a never-ending battle over personal power and agendas. So is the present condition in Washington.
Conservative Democrats To The Rescue?
Are liberal Republicans something new? No. There have always been Congressmen who have been identified as RINOs, or “Republicans In Name Only.” Remember former Republican and now “Independent” Jim Jeffords of Vermont? His liberal leanings finally caused him to leave the GOP, to which I say ‘good riddance.’ And I’m sure that many of those who Weyrich may consider to be liberal Republicans are not new to their elected posts.
In times past, however, it was always a fact of life that there were some conservative Democrats who would usually vote with the bulk of the Republicans and move forward with a conservative agenda. Perhaps the best example of a conservative Democrat was now-retired Senator Zell Miller of Georgia (we miss him). Not only did he vote consistently with conservatives, but he was also the keynote speaker at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Don’t hold your breath until Ted Kennedy gets that honor!
But that was then, and this is now. As we head into the 2006 election year, the Democrats smell blood in the water. When you have a recent ABC News poll showing voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on economic and defense matters, there’s opportunity in the air. They see President Bush’s approval ratings plummeting and the Republicans in general disarray, so why cooperate in any way when a big change may be just down the road in 2006, so they think? Along this line, Weyrich writes:
“Usually Republicans can count on a handful of Democrats, twenty-some to be more precise, to pass appropriations bills or other controversial measures which come before the House of Representatives. Not now. Even the most reasonable Democrat again sees him- or herself as a committee or subcommittee chair after a dozen years in the wilderness. So Democrats are not about to help Republicans enact any legislation.”
Not Only Liberal Republicans Are To Blame
Are the so-called Liberal Republicans the only ones to blame for the total legislative failure of the Bush second term? Frankly, no. President Bush and his administration have done an awful job of communicating with the American people (particularly to their base) regarding the reality of the legislative and congressional situation. Consider Weyrich’s simple statement:
“Republicans have a majority in Congress but Conservatives do not have a majority. Expectations were built upon the assumption that Congress was Conservative. The elected Leadership reinforced that perception. Now comes reality. Liberal Republicans hold the balance of power. The Leadership either compromises or loses.” [Emphasis added, GH.]
Nothing I have read more perfectly summarizes the GOP’s plight better than the above quote, and this is what you need to understand (frankly, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, conservative or liberal). The liberal Republicans are pretty much running the show. As a result, the Bush administration is floundering in terms of pushing its agenda, whatever that may be.
At the same time, supposedly conservative members of Congress have also not helped themselves in the eyes of their constituencies by approving pork-laden legislation such as the Transportation Bill. By continuing to expand governmental spending, and thus government itself, they abandon their supposed allegiance to the ideals that got them elected in the first place. Put differently, they simply succumb to the politics of it all. And they are not alone.
President Bush also deserves some of the blame. I know some of my readers don’t like it when I criticize the president, but to pretend that the current political situation is anything other than a disappointment would be irresponsible. It is important to keep in mind that I have never held back from criticizing any president – Democrat or Republican – when I felt it was needed, and in this case, President Bush rightly deserves some criticism. Here’s why.
To begin with, President Bush campaigned both times as a strong conservative, yet he has been anything but conservative on a number of issues. Steel tariffs, the farm bill, the highway bill, prescription drugs, etc., etc. Bush has yet to veto anything! As a result, we have record large budget deficits.
Bottom line: if there is a Democratic sweep in the 2006 elections, which I still doubt at this point, it may not come because more liberals are energized to vote, but because too many conservatives are too disappointed to go to the polls.
How We Got These Liberal Republicans
Everyone knows that Republicans are supposed to be conservative, right? After all, the Republican Party platform is replete with conservative ideals of lower taxes, less government, more power at the state level, a strong defense, etc., etc. So, how can someone running under that banner actually be a closet liberal?
There are lots of theories about this, but here are a couple of reasons I think are interesting. The first is that there are very few people who are completely conservative or completely liberal on every single issue. In fact, it is almost ridiculous to believe that all of the disparate beliefs and values of all Americans could be neatly categorized into two competing political parties. In between the far right wing and the far left wing are a multitude of shades of gray. As a result, some elected officials reflect these views in the middle, and that means they will oppose their own party on some issues.
Another reason why we have liberal Republicans might be illustrated by our own experience here in Texas. There was a time in Texas that if you wanted to be elected, you had to run as a Democrat. Regardless of one’s ideology, Republicans just didn’t get elected, period. Yet, in the 1980s (thanks in part to Ronald Reagan), all that began to change. This can be illustrated by the number of prominent Texas politicians who have switched from the Democratic Party over to the Republican Party. Former senator Phil Graham, former Texas governor John Connally, current Texas governor Rick Perry and a host of other lesser-known politicians all saw that their conservative views were out of place in the national Democratic Party, so they followed their principles to the party that best fit their political philosophies.
The fact is, this is not just a Texas phenomenon; it exists in many parts of the country. The only difference is that in recent years, it has been more popular to be a Republican than a Democrat. As a result, some liberals now realize that they must run as a Republican to get elected, even though they may not agree with much, if any, of the supposed Republican agenda.
Addicted To Politics At Any Price
While the four paragraphs above are indeed accurate, it is my view that the main reason we have liberal Republicans is simply the “Washington Mentality.” The political reality in Washington is decidedly liberal. “Political correctness” abounds. Otherwise conservative leaders go to Washington, and unless they are deeply rooted in their convictions, they tend to migrate to the liberal side of the spectrum over time.
They also get addicted to politics, the grandeur of it all and especially the social life in Washington. This, too, has a way of changing their thinking on the issues. Staying in office becomes more important than their views on the issues. Staying in office may mean voting for pork barrel legislation, even if you don’t really agree with it, especially if you can deliver some pork to your constituents back home, who may then vote to re-elect you.
It’s a nasty and vicious cycle, which only benefits those in office.
So, What Should Conservatives Do Now?
For starters, President Bush and the GOP should adopt a genuine agenda and then stick to it. While the Republicans love to blast the Democrats for their constant attacks and for not having a legislative agenda and real ideas for solving our problems, the fact is, the GOP doesn’t really have an agenda either. Granted, it is difficult for conservatives to have a defined agenda when they are not really in control of their own party. But worst of all, their excuse is that if they reveal their true agenda, it would provide far too much “ammunition” to the Democrats and give far too much leverage to the liberal Republicans. How weak!
Secondly, conservatives in Washington also fail to recognize another point. If they were to articulate a truly conservative agenda, it would force the hands of those “centrists” who have hijacked the Congress. This would allow the leadership to clearly and publicly identify who is, and who is not, in support of the agenda and why. Would this really work? I think so as does Weyrich:
“Most Liberal Republicans have been in Washington long enough to chair either [a] committee or subcommittee. The Leadership should get the Republican Conference in both Houses to adopt a legislative agenda. Senators and Congressmen would be told in advance that the agenda would include party discipline votes. If a Senator or Congressman would not vote for the GOP agenda he or she could not chair a committee or subcommittee. Just watch how reasonable some Liberal Republicans would become. Chairmanships bring prestige. They bring the opportunity to move issues of interest to the chairs. They bring additional staff and monies with which to run the committee or subcommittee. Few willingly would give up those chairmanships for the sake of voting against ANWR or other divisive issues.”
Apparently, the conservative leadership – and President Bush – have concluded that such a bold move is too heavy handed, but in fact, it isn’t. Most of you will remember the “Contract With America” in 1994. That is the same type of concept that we need today. The Contract was very successful, so much so that Bill Clinton often co-opted many of its core issues as his own. More importantly the public responds to that type of leadership and initiative. Sadly, that is precisely what has been lacking from this Congress and this administration for some time.
Another possibility would be to take a page from Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s book. Koizumi, a reformer, had set forward a bold agenda for Japan. His reform initiatives met stiff resistance in the Japanese legislative body. Many in Koizumi’s own party went against him.
So, Koizumi took his case directly to the people. He also selected a number of “replacement” candidates for the upcoming elections. Placing his personal credibility and agenda on the line, Koizumi campaigned for and vigorously supported these candidates. When the results were tallied, most of these candidates won, and Koizumi’s legislative agenda was quickly adopted.
For reasons I still do not understand, President Bush has never taken his case to the American people. He has never used the “bully pulpit.” Why not go on national TV and plead your case directly to the people as Ronald Reagan did so often? Yes, he has been distracted by the war in Iraq. But that is no excuse, in my opinion. Weyrich agrees:
“If the Leadership would say, ‘We simply do not have enough Conservatives to do what you want. Send us 15 more House Members and 6 more Senators and we'll produce the most remarkable record of the past century. Until we get those extra Members we can’t give you what you are expecting’.”
Why not just tell the American people the truth? Why not tell conservatives that it is liberal Republicans that are the problem? But apparently, President Bush and the conservatives in Congress believe they are too weak as a party, and too fractured, to attempt anything of the sort. This is sad!
Conclusions: The Trouble With Power
In the commodity futures business, there is a saying - ‘the solution for high prices is high prices.’ We’ve seen that saying played out in the energy markets this year. Well in politics, there’s a similar saying, ‘the trouble with being in power is being in power.’ The sad truth is, the GOP seems to have fallen victim to its own success.
When a political party is in the ‘wilderness,’ their various elements are forced to close ranks and unite in order to find their way back. The party in power grows fat and happy and eventually its fringe elements rise up to the surface and find themselves in a position to “wag the dog.” This typically causes the party in power to implode and the opposition then takes over and the cycle repeats. It could well be that the GOP is up against such a political force of nature.
But for now, the liberal Republicans are in control. They know it, and the Democrats know it. President Bush and the conservatives in Congress should expose this reality and put forth a truly conservative agenda. President Bush should take to the airwaves and explain to the country why he has not been able to advance his agenda, assuming he has one. He should specifically identify those in the Republican Party who are the problem.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? So why is this not at least an option under consideration?
I could write volumes on this subject, but fortunately space does not permit. The bottom line is that the political process has devolved to the point that few in Washington want to take strong positions. It’s hard to tell Republicans from Democrats and conservatives from liberals, at least in Washington.
Part of me believes there is still a remote chance to change all that, but I don’t think President Bush and his advisors have the courage or commitment to take the actions I suggested above. So, the most likely course is more politics as usual.
Hopefully, this article will help you to understand why, even though the Republicans are in the majority, they are not in control. Unfortunately, this explanation does not have a happy ending. So I apologize for bringing disappointing news (not that this is really news to most of you) as we head into the holidays.
Next week, I promise, we will explore a lighter and amusing topic.
Very best regards,
Gary D. Halbert
ProFutures, Inc. © 2005
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