GOP Problems Can Be Blamed on Faulty Leadership Methods

Posted June 3, 2008 at 2:58pm

This has truly been an annus horribilis for Congressional Republicans. It seems like it cannot get any worse — a wave of retirements creating a swath of suddenly vulnerable seats, a financial disaster punctuated by major embezzlement (and huge accounting fees to find out how much was actually heisted), a series of scandals, and three consecutive special election defeats starting with the district previously represented by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). But then, for a little distraction, Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) steals the headlines and opens up another vulnerable seat.

[IMGCAP(1)]Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) had the best description of the Republican Congressional brand right now: “If we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf.” That pungent comment, part of a penetrating 20-page analysis, kicked off a paroxysm of self-analysis by House Republicans. What went wrong?

There is an easy answer — nothing went right. The Iraq War, the surge notwithstanding, has been a political disaster. The economy has been worse. Gasoline prices keep going up and are now causing serious anger among the public — with no sign of improvement. There is the rancid residue of a House majority that careened out of control under Hastert and former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), with a culture of corruption joined to unrestrained spending, with the earmark frenzy the crowning achievement and the “Bridge to Nowhere” providing an easy-to-understand symbol. And we can always add in a president with an approval rating that is about on par with Richard Nixon’s on the eve of impeachment.

But that easy answer is not enough. After all, the Democrats are in the majority in Congress, and the subprime mess, gas price explosion, war and other issues that leave the public unhappy have all happened (or continued) on their watch. Democrats running Congress have also had their share of problems, from scandals to earmarks. And it is not as if the public is enraptured with Congressional Democrats. So why are the minority Republicans getting the much shorter end of the public approval stick?

I think the Congressional GOP disaster is, as much as anything, a result of the deeply flawed strategy of the minority leadership — a strategy based primarily on trying to embarrass the Democrats and showing them to be hypocrites and extremists. It is not framed around giving the American people a real set of alternatives to consider, but on trying to convince voters that as bad as the Republicans might have been in the majority, the Democrats are far worse.

Consider the incident I mentioned in last week’s column, wherein Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) introduced a resolution calling for an ethics investigation of the embarrassing enrollment glitch in which a title of the agriculture bill that President Bush vetoed was inadvertently missing, requiring some fancy footwork on the part of the majority to make up for the error. This was clearly a gaffe by an enrolling clerk, something that neither House leaders nor the White House caught when the president issued his veto. There was no reason for anyone to gain some advantage somehow by removing this title; it was simply a major blunder by an employee.

But Boehner not only called for an ethics investigation, he also “admonished” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the majority leadership for their actions and asserted that the vote to override the veto might be unconstitutional. Which raises an interesting question: If the vote to override is unconstitutional, what does that make the veto?

This brouhaha was just silly and makes the minority look foolish, petty and petulant. But it is only a small example of the larger point. Another is the leaders’ manipulation to block an independent ethics investigative arm — there was no reason other than to deny the majority a bipartisan victory. The most significant examples are in the motions to recommit with instructions.

To recapitulate, when the Republicans took the majority in 1994, they tried to change a process that had left them, as the minority, shut out of any real legislative role and to create a fairer process. One key route to this goal was to give the minority one real shot to offer an alternative approach, the motion to recommit with instructions, on every bill. The goal was real, and there was some adherence to it during the early Newt Gingrich years. But by the time of the Hastert-DeLay regime, the motion to recommit with instructions became a farce. DeLay framed every Democratic alternative into a procedural vote, and he demanded party loyalty to vote it down regardless of the substance. In the last GOP Congress, 2005-2006, not a single Democratic motion was accepted on the House floor.

When the Democrats took over, they promised to be different, to restore the regular order. They haven’t. They started badly by suspending the regular order to get their pledge for “Six in ’06” enacted quickly. There have been lapses and relapses. But on the motions to recommit, Democrats actually offered a more open process — open enough that Republicans won 15 of them in the first year of this Congress.

But far more often than not, Republican leaders have exploited the opening with utterly cynical motives, manipulating the language of motions to try to kill widely popular bills whose passage might make Congress look better, and to focus on irresponsible “gotcha” amendments to embarrass vulnerable Democrats instead of on principled alternative bills or proposals. The leaders have actually given the Democrats an excuse to be more highhanded and unfair. It is not too late to try this strategy — one putting the onus on the majority party to be fair, to allow serious minority alternatives and to allow open votes on them. Republicans would not win all of them, but they would actually win their share and would show Americans their seriousness of purpose and their constructive ideas.

There are times when the majority abuses its power and unreasonably runs roughshod over the minority. There are times when a minority party has to use whatever tools it has at its disposal, up to and including civil disobedience, to protect its interests and dramatize the unfairness of its plight. Instead, we have a leadership that has done a disservice to its own members, its own ideas and its own standing.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.