Uncompromising and unprincipled

Posted: May 14, 2006 12:05 AM

Congress has become uncompromising. Legislators no longer know how to deal with each other. No give and take remains.

If this is so, then why does the majority party find it so hard to accomplish its alleged goals? If it brooks no opposition, then why does it look so much like what it opposes — the spend, spend, spendthrift party?

This week former Senate Majority Whip Alan Simpson came to Washington to give a talk about humor on Capitol Hill. He made some widely repeated remarks about how different politics is these days from when he was in office. He expressed shock — shock! — that his Republican Party fellows had nixed a mental health bill "just because" it had minority party sponsors. "You've got to have rocks for brains to do that," the Washington Post quoted him as saying. Why, back in the old days "[w]e just didn't do that to each other."

Every week, every day we read a column or listen to a pundit relate how uncivil Congress has become. But if you had asked me during a period of alleged bipartisan co-operation, like the '50s, I might have said (had I been alive), "Maybe a little less co-operation and a little less compromise would be a good thing; maybe politicians should stick to principles."

But the present case proves my '50s' self's surmise wrong. We have a majority party and it doesn't play nice, doesn't compromise. But it is enhancing — not diminishing — the size and scope of government . . . contrary to its stated principles. The idea of limited government — an ideal that since Goldwater and Reagan has been definitively associated with the GOP — is now something honored only in the breach.

The Medicare Part D fiasco, for example, has alone widened the scope and increased the size of the welfare state. The power of the Department of Education — once a GOP candidate for abolition — has been strengthened, not weakened, by the "No Child Left Behind Act." A myriad unsupportable pork projects have been funded while foreign policy has become a matter of nation-building . . . the latter being something our president and many other conservatives once argued was against America's interests . . . and conservative principles.

In an environment where liberals are scorned and scoffed at and shunned — the GOP-controlled Congress and White House — politicians who profess conservative principles can be the only ones to blame when conservative principles remain without force, affecting nothing.

Not everyone sees it that way, of course. I get many interesting emails. Regularly I'm remonstrated (neat word, eh?) for lack of loyalty to the GOP. "If we don't stick together, the liberals win."

This reminds me of the old joke about Barry Goldwater. "They told me if I voted for Goldwater we'd become mired in a terrible war. I voted for Goldwater, and America got stuck in the muck of a terrible war." Update the logic. Some of us who promote limited government have criticized the Republican majority for not being conservative enough, not true enough to its own creed. We're told that if we aren't loyal, the liberals will win. We've criticized. And the liberals have won.

They're just called Republicans.

How did this happen? I've a simple guess. Power. Power corrupts. And absolute power . . . well, a united government, with an ineffective minority party, has corrupted alleged conservatives into something very different.

And they could get away with it because of loyalty.

Not their loyalty. They're not loyal to much of anything, as near as I can make out. Our loyalty. Well, not mine exactly, but the loyalty of the grassroots conservatives, the serious ones who write me earnest letters.

Loyal conservatives have stuck by their wayward politicians. And these politicians have learned to count on that unearned loyalty.

Thankfully, that loyalty is evaporating. The popularity of Congress and the President is low, low, low — so low it can hardly get much lower.

Loyalty is supposed to be a two-way street. We're loyal to our standard bearers, and they're loyal to . . . ? Disloyalty breeds disloyalty . . . almost requires it.

The one thing these wayward representatives did was keep up appearances. The way to keep getting heard by their loyal base was to increase the rancor at the Democrats. It didn't mean that they legislated any better. It merely meant that they looked as though they were behaving as conservatives, standing up against the liberal juggernaut and all.

Quite a con job.

The cost? Civility in government, honesty in politics. The modern GOP no longer compromises. Republican politicians haven't compromised their principles so much as abandoned their principles.

Alan Simpson has a very different sort of explanation, though. From his planet, he sees the increased costs of getting elected as the true stumbling block to good legislation and co-operation. And so, as the Washington Post relates, "[t]ogether with other Senate old-timers, Republican Warren Rudman and Democrats Bob Kerrey and Bill Bradley, he's starting a new push for taxpayer-funded elections."

He does have a partial point. Taxpayer-funded and heavily controlled elections might very well (read: ill) increase civility. But it would do so at the expense of any remaining citizen control in democracy.

Increased civility, how? By making elected officials one big happy family of specially privileged rulers. It would be them against us. (They wouldn't even need those of us who write checks.) Of course they'd get along!

Decreased democracy, why? By further increasing the power of incumbency, already a horrible problem. The longer politicians stay in power, the more likely they will become corrupted by the system, the more they will think in terms quite distinct from those who elect them.

Solution? Simple. Limit their terms. It can't guarantee civility, but much of the money would go out of the game (the shorter the time in office, the less the return on lobbyist investment).

And the false culture of desperation that now suffuses a corrupt GOP would naturally decline as old-timers and failures leave office, and new minds and new thoughts enter.

It's no panacea. It is "merely" a healthier response to incivility than turning our money and our free-speech rights over to the insiders who now misrule.