House Vote Was a Failure of Followers, Not Leaders

Posted September 30, 2008 at 2:54pm

I must confess, I was stunned by the vote on the House floor. I thought that after all the maneuvering — most of it, other than Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) campaign suspension, typical of high-stakes endgame negotiations — once the leaders of both parties and both chambers came together, the votes would be there. After all, it was clear that if the bill, whatever its flaws, went down, the reaction in markets at home and abroad would be devastating. Let me make one thing clear: Every vote against this bill, no matter who cast it and no matter what the motives, was irresponsible. We have one president, one Treasury secretary, one set of Congressional leaders. They all came together at a time of national emergency and crafted a compromise plan. There is a time for leadership and a time for followership. The followership failed.

[IMGCAP(1)]Perhaps I underestimated how broken the branch really is. But despite the broader continuing dysfunction in our political system, one where a failure of leadership (and of followership) is matched by a level of partisan distrust and bile that is over the line, we have been able to count on the two parties coming together at times of crisis, from the period just after 9/11 to the stimulus package earlier in this Congress. It should have happened this time as well.

There are some admirable figures here. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), along with stalwarts such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), stepped up to the plate and tried like crazy to craft a revised plan that would add some checks and balances and some fairness, and that could pass. They transcended the partisan divide, taking plenty of flak from their own parties and constituents, because they believed the country needed it. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) started off down the same path, then drew back, and then returned to the table through his deputy, Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Even if in the aftermath of the failure Boehner and Blunt reverted to partisan form, they did try to work with their counterparts.

What happened? We have to start with the initial plan. Paulson is a competent, decent and highly credible Treasury secretary. He is also a political ignoramus. Proposing a huge initiative in three pages with no checks and balances and open-ended power for the Treasury secretary — and demanding that it be passed immediately — was just politically foolish. Even more stupid was framing it as a bailout instead of a financial rescue package. The word bailout is terrible, and it created a huge problem on both sides. For conservatives, it was the specter of a huge new role for government in the economy; for liberals, it was using tax dollars to bail out the wealthiest among us. It was the worst possible way to sell this to the public, which does not start with a high reservoir of trust for any players in Washington.

Even worse, it was and is inaccurate. This is not a bailout of banks and other financial institutions. It is a financial rescue plan; it is not $700 billion of taxpayer money going to line the coffers of fat cats; it is the purchase at market prices, meaning deep discounts, of packages of mortgage-backed securities that are otherwise impossible to value and that are leaving the financial institutions unable to function, leaving our economy teetering at the edge. There is a very good chance this $700 billion revolving line of credit will ultimately result in a profit for taxpayers. Try explaining that to angry voters after you have told them you want their money to bail out rich bankers.

Still, those gaffes could have and should have been overcome by the stark reality of a meltdown in the credit markets, and the fact that Paulson is a competent, decent and highly credible Treasury secretary. But the political dynamics are as bad as they possibly can be. Unfortunately, the current president is at the lowest approval level of his tenure, and close to the lowest in recorded history — and with a credibility problem at least as great with his own partisans in Congress as with Democrats.

This crisis occurs barely a month before a hugely consequential presidential election, with enormous implications for Congress as well. The presidential candidates — both Senators, a unique twist — were in a delicate situation. One will be president in January — but neither is president now. Every call for them to come up with specific plans of their own meant calling for them to step inappropriately on the role of the current president. (The temptation to step in, given the high political stakes, was nonetheless too great for McCain.) Injecting presidential politics into contentious legislative negotiations was combustible, and timed especially badly.

Add to that the fact that House Republicans know they will take it on the chin in November and have been desperately seeking a way to turn the low public approval of Congress away from them and against the party in power. Having a Democratic Congress pass a highly unpopular plan done in conjunction with President Bush and without them would be a great way to turn their guns on the Democrats and blame them for the problem. And the fact is that the top House Republican leaders are not in control of their own Conference; the driving force is the conservative Republican Study Committee, led by the likes of Reps. Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), and leaders such as Boehner and Blunt are constantly looking over their shoulders at possible challenges from someone with more appeal to that wing.

Pelosi has no challengers, and she is in firm control. But she is not in enough control to get her Caucus to act in unison. She faced a serious revolt on the left, but not just the left — many centrist Members were not about to vote for something deeply unpopular with their constituents without broad bipartisan support. In this case, the deal was clear: Get at least 40 percent of the minority party, and the majority would supply the rest.

And that is the bottom line, as it always is when it comes to sweeping, disruptive or unpopular policy change — both parties are needed to provide cover. As I have mentioned frequently, the late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) often talked about how no difficult major policy decision could easily be enacted into law without a broad consensus of elites. That consensus — incredibly, given the dire economic consequences of failure — was lacking here.

Of course, a 778-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average, along with disaster in the credit markets, will bring House Members back to the table, but the delay will only add to the damage in the marketplace. Unfortunately, even if and when Congress does pass a plan (probably nearly identical to the one that failed), some of the damage will be irreversible.

Even with my nausea at the meltdown in the House, I laughed out loud at two assertions. The first was from Boehner, echoed by Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.): that the reason for the House rejecting the plan was Pelosi; her partisan speech on the floor cost enough GOP votes to make the difference. How could smart leaders not see that what they were saying meant, in effect, that their petty pique trumped the public interest?

What made the assertion even more ridiculous is that any objective reading of Pelosi’s speech would put it at about a 3 on a 1 to 10 scale of nonpartisan to partisan. Arguably, she was trying to nail down more support for the plan from her own strong partisans. But it doesn’t matter what her motives were. This is about the flimsiest excuse imaginable for a party’s failure to step up to the plate — for leaders who could not command a third of their own followers. If Cantor was auditioning for a top leadership post, it was an abject failure.

The second hoot was from McCain accusing Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) of “phoning it in” in response to the crisis. McCain, of course, made a dramatic announcement that he was suspending his campaign, calling for postponement of the first debate, and returning to Washington to save the day. After his meetings with House Republicans to hear their objections, he told Senate Republicans he would oppose the Paulson plan even if he had to stand there all alone. Then after meeting with the bipartisan group at the White House, he went to the debate.

He then returned to Washington. On Saturday, when the key, delicate negotiations were taking place, with the strong objections of most House Republicans unallayed, McCain stayed away from the Hill, making some phone calls from his campaign office in Arlington, Va. I was puzzled; face-to-face persuasion is always more powerful than phone conversations, particularly when the face you are facing is your party’s standard-bearer and potentially the next president. To be sure, Obama did not swoop down on Capitol Hill and use his own persuasive powers. But how can you follow your dramatic move to parachute in to ongoing negotiations by deciding to phone it in — and then keep a straight face when you blast your opponent for … phoning it in? This one wins the Chutzpah Award of 2008.

I would still be laughing if it didn’t hurt so much.

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