George Will

There are two mysteries: Who surreptitiously perverted the will of Congress? And why is Congress not angry and eager to identify the culprit? It seems reasonable to suspect that the answer to the first question is: Young or an agent of his. The answer, or answers, to the second question probably is, or are: Because Young is powerful -- and perhaps also because such violations of legislative due process have been committed on behalf of other members.

Fortunately, Senate rules enable an obdurate individual to force the institution to sit up and take notice. One such mechanism is a "hold," by which a senator can halt a bill. Freshman Sen. Tom Coburn is an Oklahoma Republican who happily has not learned the Senate ethic of playing nicely with others. He has put a hold on the bill that corrects technical problems in the 2005 highway bill. On Dec. 18, he announced that he will block that bill -- and its slew of earmarks; that will get members' attention -- if the bill "does not require a full and open investigation of the events leading up to the unauthorized revision of congressionally passed legislation." Coburn demands "a select committee, comprised of members of both the House and Senate," because "secret, improper and unauthorized changes to congressionally passed legislation call into question the integrity of our entire constitutional and legislative process."

Seven weeks have passed and nothing has happened. Young, 74, one of whose former aides pleaded guilty to bribery charges involving the jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is the subject of an FBI investigation concerning another matter, and faces strong opposition to a 19th term. Recently, two more House Republicans -- the total is now 28 -- announced their retirements, evidence that Republicans do not expect soon to end their minority status that began 17 months after the Coconut Road earmark alteration.

In his State of the Union address, the president vowed to veto any appropriation bill "that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half." Coburn tartly notes that although Congress hardly needs 5,500 earmarks -- half of last year's total -- the president's goal would be met if Republicans themselves quit earmarking. That fact goes far to explain the Republicans' current and future minority status.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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