Major Garrett has been covering Congress for cable news outfits, newspapers and news magazines since 1990, when he was a reporter for The Washington Times. Now Fox News Channel’s congressional correspondent, Garrett spent Thursday on Capitol Hill, where the first Democrat-controlled House of Representatives in 12 years was sworn in. I called him to get his take on what changes and surprises we're likely to see this year in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's House:
Q: Is this Democrat takeover of Congress really a big deal -- a historic deal?
A: It’s historic at two levels. One, for the first time in 12 years, Democrats will control the agenda in the House. Why does that matter? Well, we can’t spend a dollar or tax a dollar in America without first the consent of the House. So the party in control of the House says a lot about how we spend money and how we tax money in America.
Point two is, for the first time in American history the speaker will be a woman. It’s not just any woman. It’s Nancy Pelosi, Democrat from California. One of the articles of faith of gender-politics is that you split both sides evenly -- gender and politics. Yes, she is a woman, but also she has a political record, and Nancy Pelosi historically has been among the most liberal members of Congress. Last year, according to National Journal, her voting record was more liberal than 91 percent of her colleagues.
Q: Do you think this “takeover” will actually result in any important legislation?
A: I think there are a couple of things that will occur, most definitely. There will be some arrangement to raise the minimum wage. President Bush has already signaled that. Democrats want it. It’ll be up to Republicans and the White House to decide how much of a price they want Democrats to pay in terms of small-business tax breaks, but ultimately that’s going to get done. The president also wants to work on immigration. Because the Democrats are much closer to his immigration policy than many of his House Republican colleagues, I think that has a good chance of getting done.
Also, I think there is movement afoot to deal with Social Security -- not on the president’s terms, not on post-2004 election terms of personal accounts, but entirely on Democrat terms, meaning no personal accounts or maybe something that bears some ghostly resemblance to a personal account, but higher taxes or some rejiggering of benefits along a much more traditional line of quote-unquote “fixing” Social Security.
I can tell you Democrats and Republicans are moving in that direction, and the only ones who seem to be standing athwart of history screaming “stop,” as Bill Buckley once said famously, are free-market conservatives.
Q: There are a few still left in the House.
A: One or two. They could caucus in a phone booth.
Q: What about President Bush’s call in The Wall Street Journal for compromises and bipartisanship? Does it have a chance?
A: Well, it does…. If the president can find votes with the majority of the Democrats and some moderate Republicans on some issues, he’s going to get his way on domestic policies.
It’ll be interesting to see how this new Democrat majority deals with Iraq. The president is going to have a new direction there, but there is already building tremendous intensity among the activist Democrat left for the new majority not to play ball. I would argue that Iraq at that level is a much bigger and more immediate headache for Democrats than it is for the president. It’s been a headache enough for the president, no doubt. This is going to be a simmering issue that will boil up to the surface within a matter of certainly months but possibly weeks.
Q: How nasty is this going to be in Congress? Is there going to be a lot of partisanship and a lot of gridlock?
A: I think Republicans are too shell-shocked right now to be nasty. Republicans are reacting to this defeat much differently than Democrats did when I covered the Republican Revolution of 1994 that manifested itself with the first Republican majority in the House in 40 years in 1995. Then Democrats were seething with anger and ready to find offense at the slightest provocation from Republicans, real or imagined.
As a matter of fact, (look at) this little debate that’s going on now about the Democrats moving their “First 100 hours” agenda without any committee meetings or floor amendments. If Republicans had tried that when they came to power in 1995, the Democrats might have considered burning the Capitol down. Republicans are saying, “Well, you know, OK, We’ll take them at their word. After the first 100 legislative hours they’ll give us some bites of the legislative apple.” That just shows you the difference. In the Contract With America, everything that went to the floor went through committees, had to withstand the acid test of Democratic amendments meant to peel away Republicans when they came to the floor; Amendments were offered, Democrats were able to marshal their resources and their wit and wisdom and offer their alternatives on the floor -- and Republicans passed everything. It was proof positive that they were not only willing to push their agenda but also subject it to a full and open debate. Democrats aren’t and Republicans are basically letting them get away with it.
Q: Beyond the “100-hour agenda” will Democrats try to pass anything big or controversial?
A: Not without a handshake from the White House.
Q: Will the most liberal Democrats try to sabotage the troop surge or larger Iraq policy?
A: “Sabotage” is not the right word. Congress has only one mechanism by which to alter war policy -- that is to deny funds. The central question Democrats have to ask themselves is: “Do we deny funds or do we not?” That’s it. That’s all there is. They can do nothing else, because the commander in chief sets policy. So, there are many wise men and women in the Democrats' ranks who are counseling this new Democrat majority: “Don’t cut the funds.” Because if you cut the funds, Democrats become co-authors of the next chapter of Iraq, meaning they are co-responsible, equally responsible.
Right now the leadership’s position is: pressure for a change, pressure for a new direction, see if that works and see how long they can tamp down this activists’ revolt in their ranks, which is more grass-roots than at the member level right now. But if the grass-roots get fully motivated it will get to the member level and will become a voting matter by summer.
Q: So the Democrats are not going to get too crazy? They’re not going to try to roll back the tax cuts or start subpoenaing people?
A: Those are two completely different questions. On taxes, the first thing Democrats are going to try to do is prevent the Alternative Minimum Tax from hitting another tranche of upper-middle-class taxpayers. Actually, Democrats are going to be trying to shield the middle-class and the upper-middle-class from the alternative minimum tax. That’s the first thing they are going to do when it comes to tax policy. That will be welcomed by many taxpayers who might suddenly find themselves unexpectedly paying higher taxes -- because they are defined by a 1971 bit of mathematics put into the tax code -- as being obscenely wealthy in America, when obviously they are not.
But subpoenas are a totally different thing. This Congress is going to define itself by investigating the White House up one side and down the other. The investigative mechanism of Congress will be brought to bear fully on Iraq. Because that’s the mechanism by which Democrats tell their activists they’re dealing with Iraq: “Hey, we’re investigating. We’re oversighting them. If there were crimes, we’re going to get them punished” and things like that. That’s going to be their safety valve to not have to immediately defund or reduce funds for the war.
Q: Will the conservatives -- the fiscally sound conservatives, all four of them -- will they unite and return to their lost conservative values to combat the Democrats?
A: They might. But that’s not what’s going to be what gets it done. I spent four years covering the Republicans when they were in a minority and the Democrat majority in Congress was basically in its death throes. What Republicans did was they stopped just saying, “We want something cheaper.” They started saying, “We want something better” and they actually went through the hard work of creating what that better thing would be; that is to say, new ideas to reshape existing government programs along the lines of efficiency or cost-savings or maybe getting rid of regulations that had long outlived their usefulness. That’s what works in American politics.
Right now, Republicans are too dispirited to say, “Oh, we’ve got religion. We want to do it cheaper.” That’s not going to get it done. That’s not going to create a political following necessary to get them back in power. They’re going to have to put the shoulder to the wheel and ask hard questions and come up with some innovative answers about how to make what they have work better, smarter and cheaper. Whether they’re up to that, I don’t know.
Q: Do you see President Bush learning how to use the veto pen?
A: I do -- as a matter of necessity. But his first response will not be the veto pen. His first response will be, “Can we cut a deal.” The president is, as all presidents are, acutely aware of his diminished role in American life. He’s still the president but he has a weaker hand to play than ever before. So in certain respects he has to come on bended knee. He will seek accommodation first and wield the veto pen only as a last resort.
Q: What will Nancy Pelosi accomplish or try to accomplish that may surprise us?
A: I think we may find the San Francisco liberal -- who opposed the war, who organized her Democratic caucus in the House to speak out against the war -- in the position of straddling a quote-unquote “consensus” or “accommodationist” role against her left wing in order to protect the president’s policy -- at least in 2007. You may find in the not-too-distant future liberals denouncing Nancy Pelosi as an Iraq War sellout.