Congress isn't blame-free

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: May 09, 2006 12:04 AM

In my new book, "Impostor," I am highly critical of President Bush for failing to stand up for conservative principles. One of the main criticisms I have heard is that Republicans in Congress deserve much of the blame for out-of-control federal spending and other sins that I pin on him.

This is a valid point. But I take the view that members of Congress will always behave myopically, seeing spending that benefits their constituents as supremely virtuous even as they decry deficits and bloated budgets.

It is the president's responsibility to look out for the national interest and fight congressional myopia. His main tool for doing so is the veto, which Bush steadfastly refuses to exercise. Only Thomas Jefferson, our third president, served longer without vetoing anything. Consequently, Congress has learned that it can ignore all of Bush's veto threats, knowing they are empty.

Foreign policy realists understand that military force needs to be exercised from time to time to make diplomacy effective. It has always seemed odd to me that Bush can understand this point so clearly in the international arena, yet fail to see that the same principle applies when dealing with Congress. He has to veto something occasionally -- not just make threats -- if he expects Congress to follow his budgetary priorities.

Moreover, Bush refuses to ask Congress for any budget rescissions -- requests to cancel previously enacted spending. Nor does he use his constitutional authority to impound pork barrel spending that is not authorized by law.

The fact is that some 95 percent of so-called earmarks in the budget appear only in report language and not as line items in appropriations bills, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. The president could simply order his Cabinet secretaries to ignore them if he chose to. Instead, Bush insists that he needs line-tem veto authority to cancel earmarks, even though it would apply to just 5 percent of the total.

Still, Congress surely bears much of the blame for economic policy getting off on the wrong track. It wasn't President Bush, but then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, who said last year that there was no fat left to cut in the budget. And it is not President Bush, but Republicans in Congress, who today are talking about stupid ideas like sending out $100 "rebate" checks to offset higher gasoline costs, windfall profits taxes on oil companies and bringing lawsuits against oil-exporting countries, as if that would do any good.

This epidemic of idiocy in Congress is starting to wear down even die-hard Republicans. Rich Lowry, editor of National Review magazine, recently said that Capitol Hill, where Republicans control both houses of Congress, is being run by "a bunch of bungling, spend-thrift, unreformable, tin-eared, unimaginative, hysterical pols."

Lowry pointed out that as low as Bush's poll numbers are, Congress' are even lower. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, Bush is supported by only 36 percent of Americans, but just 22 percent approve of the job Congress is doing. That's worse than the numbers for Congress at a similar point in 1994, the year voters dumped the Democrats and gave control of both houses to Republicans for the first time in 40 years.

On the blogs, one is seeing more and more conservatives saying that it might be necessary for Republicans to lose the House or Senate this fall to give them a wake-up call and get them back on the right course before the next presidential election. One of those making this argument is Ross Douthat of Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Douthat's main argument is that the presidential election in 2008 will be "tremendously significant" and that a weak Republican Congress is going to be an albatross around the Republican presidential nominee's neck. Says Douthat, "Having (Senate Majority Leader Bill) Frist, (Speaker of the House Dennis) Hastert, (House Majority Leader John) Boehner and company to kick around for another two years is only going to strengthen the Democrats' hand."

Douthat also believes that conservatives are more likely to have a wide-open debate, "informed by a sense of political urgency," about what they stand for if Republicans suffer defeat in 2006. Keeping congressional Republicans in power for another two years "could ruin the right's prospect for a generation," he fears.

Republicans in Congress are convinced that gerrymandering and a big advantage in fund raising will keep them in control. Democrats would have to win virtually every race seen today as winnable to get a majority in either the House or Senate. But there could be more seats in play if large numbers of conservatives stay home on Election Day.

It should be remembered that Republicans won in 1994 not because they got a lot more votes than usual, but because so many dispirited Democrats didn't vote that year.