WASHINGTON -- The Democrats, flush from their 2006 election gains, took over Congress in January, promising to end the legislative stalemate and pass a sweeping agenda for reform.
Nearly six months later, they have backpedaled on their promises of reform; they've made little progress on major legislation; their job-approval ratings have taken a nosedive; and there's talk for the first time that House Democrats could lose seats to the Republicans in 2008.
They came into power pledging to curb wasteful pork projects that had hit a record $23 billion in 2006. Then they passed a budget resolution that would increase nondefense discretionary spending by $23 billion more than President Bush proposed. A coincidence?
"Taxpayers -- and even lawmakers -- want to know how much of this new spending will go toward pork projects. But House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (of Wisconsin) has reversed earlier transparency pledges by vowing to keep all House pork projects secret until the appropriations bills have passed the House," complains budget watchdog Brian Riedl at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
In a memo circulated on Capitol Hill last week, Riedl said that, contrary to the Democrats' promises to end "earmarking" of line-item requests for pork projects back home, the practice continues at full throttle.
"Obey claims to have received 32,000 earmark requests, an average of 74 from each of the 435 House members," Riedl said.
Last week, as the pork battle grew hotter, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio accused Obey and the Democrats of creating a "slush fund for secret earmarks," charging that "the interest of the American people is being subverted."
Pork was a major issue that contributed to the GOP's losses last year, but Boehner has put his party back on the side of the pork busters and the fight for fiscal discipline. Through most of last week, he and his ground troops kept up a steady drumbeat of press releases, statements and floor speeches that threw the Democrats on the defensive and gained a proposed deal to open up the earmarks to more scrutiny and legislative challenges.
Whatever happens next, the Republicans are back on the right fiscal message that will be one of the GOP's campaign themes in next year's elections: The Democrats' addiction to big-government spending.
While Democrats were feeling the heat in the House on spending, very little else was getting done in either chamber in terms of legislative reforms.
That's because Democrats were devoting much of their time to a seemingly endless series of politically motivated hearings -- inquisition is a more accurate term -- to bring down the Bush administration.
In the House, the Democrats' Grand Inquisitor is Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the zealously partisan chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Waxman's political mandate from Speaker Nancy Pelosi: Go after every administration official you can, on any pretext you can, to build a list of election-year accusations that can help our party in 2008.
Last week, Waxman was grilling Lurita Alexis Doan, the head of the General Services Administration, who triggered a Hatch Act investigation by asking political appointees at a briefing in January how they could "help our candidates." Her record as a waste fighter in the government-building agency that has saved taxpayers money was irrelevant to Waxman, who focused on an inadvertent remark, a harmless mistake.
But to Waxman, who looked the other way during a reign of scandals in the Clinton administration, this was a firing offense. "I would urge you to resign," he told her last week at a hearing where Doan said she had never sought any "personal or partisan political gain" at GSA.
Meantime, Democrats on the House and Senate judiciary committees were pursuing a political inquisition of their own to find out why the White House dismissed eight U.S. attorneys at the end of their terms -- which the president has every right to do.
Subpoenas have been issued to require the testimony of two of Bush's former aides, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former White House political director Sara Taylor. Unable to drive Attorney General Alberto Gonzales from office, since no one has proved he did anything unethical or illegal, Democrats are now going after Bush's closest aides, who have not been accused of any wrongdoing, either.
Is this what voters wanted Democrats to do when they put them back in power? The Democrats' sinking job-approval polls, lower than Bush's scores, suggest otherwise. And they may be hearing from those voters next year.
Last week, elections tracker Stu Rothenberg told his newsletter clients that Republican campaign strategists now "have about half a dozen seats they know the party should never have lost ... and eight of the nine most vulnerable House seats currently are held by Democrats.
"While it is now safe to say that Democrats will retain the House next year, small gains for either party are possible," he said.