Ten years after the Contract

Posted: Oct 08, 2004 12:00 AM

 When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, it was widely hailed as a revolution.  Now, 10 years later, it is looking more and more like a coup d?etat that only changed the leadership while leaving everything else unchanged.  In particular, the problem of an ?Imperial Congress? seems little different today than it did under Democratic control.

 It is almost forgotten now how powerfully concerns about an Imperial Congress aided the Republican takeover.  Democrats had controlled Congress more or less continuously since 1932.  This bred arrogance and a casual disregard for the rights of the Republican minority.  Even many liberals like Joseph Califano worried that Congress had gotten too big for its britches, usurping power that rightfully belonged to the president.

 Republicans often cited the Founding Fathers to argue that continuous one-party control of Congress was antidemocratic.  They quoted Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 71: ?The representatives of the people?seem sometimes to fancy that they are the people themselves, and betray strong symptoms of impatience and disgust at the least sign of opposition from any other quarter; as if the exercise of its rights, by either the executive or judiciary, were a breach of their privilege and an outrage to their dignity.?

 The Heritage Foundation did much of the heavy lifting in raising concerns about Democratic imperiousness in Congress.  It published ?The Imperial Congress? in 1988, a book that cited chapter and verse on the myriad of ways in which one-party domination undermined executive authority, bloated the budget with special interest provisions, crippled national security, and threatened our very system of government.

 Republicans in Congress also published scholarly assessments of the Democrats? abuses of power.  In July 1994, the House Republican leadership issued a study entitled, ?It?s Long Enough: The Decline of Popular Government Under Forty Years of Single Party Control of the House of Representatives.?  It detailed all the methods used by Democrats to maintain their power from gerrymandering congressional districts to manipulation of House rules to prevent Republican amendments, from unbalanced committee ratios to the virtual extortion of campaign contributions from the business community.

 Not surprisingly, Republicans made congressional reforms a key element of their ?Contract With America? in 1994.  These included making Congress obey laws that applied to everyone else, but which it had exempted itself from; having an independent auditor examine the Congress?s own books; reducing the number of committees and cutting their staffs; and imposing term limits on committee chairmen, among other things.

 It?s hard to say how much impact these efforts had in shifting public opinion.  But I think they helped convince more than a few opinion makers in Washington, including some liberals, that maybe it wouldn?t be a bad idea to let the Democrats spend some time in the political wilderness.  It would help cleanse the system, get rid of dead wood, and force the adoption of widely supported reforms.  However, it is doubtful that any of them thought that the Republicans would be able to maintain control for more than a few years.

 At first, I think Republicans sincerely wanted to change all the things they chaffed under while in the minority, such as closed rules that prevented congressmen from offering amendments from the floor.  But as time went by, they have become more and more like the Democrats they deposed, using the power of the majority to crush the minority.

 An Oct. 3 report in the Boston Globe recounts many of the ways in which the old Imperial Congress is back with a vengeance.  It explains how bills are brought to the floor with no hearings or mark-ups by the committees of jurisdiction, no committee reports, and in many cases without even a printed bill that members can study.  It tells how the House Rules Committee routinely rewrites bills, bottles up those opposed by the leadership even when they have majority support in the House, and often meets in secret in the dead of night to prevent Democrats from knowing what is going on.

 The Globe says that Democrats are often prevented from attending conference committees, where differences between House and Senate bills are resolved.  And contrary to standard procedures, Republicans routinely add costly pork barrel projects that did not exist in either the House or Senate versions of the legislation.

 Finally, the Globe tells how Republicans stifle debate by severely limiting the amount of time a bill can be on the floor.  The 2001 tax bill, for example, had only 3 hours for debate, and the controversial USA Patriot Act was passed in a single day.

 Yet, as budget expert Stan Collender notes, the Republican leadership hasn?t fulfilled its primary responsibility of passing a budget, enacting appropriations bills, or raising the debt limit.

 It looks more and more like the Republicans have become the Democrats they overthrew in 1994.