Today, Democrats Have Caught the Car. Now What?

An insider delivers a warning to incoming Democrats, and America.

As the newly elected Congress convenes today, Democrats will be tempted to continue on their well-tread path: delivering rhetorical stridency, combined with inaction that is periodically interrupted by enabling behaviors, especially on the question of the war in Iraq.

Congress, which was specifically designed by the Founding Fathers as a bar to an imperial presidency, has instead become a bartender. Democrats would have you believe it's all the Republicans fault-and, indeed, under Republican rule since 1995, Congress has hit all time lows-but Democrats' opposition to President George W. Bush's domination of the political landscape has been feeble. And in outlining their plan of action for the future, Democrats have proposed no coherent-or even incoherent- alternative policies on the core issues. They did not earn any victory in their own right.  Instead, the Republicans lost, and they earned every bit of it.

Can the new Democratic Congress that was sworn in today sublimate its unearned victory and rule with any grace and competence? And, more to the point, what kinds of changes would bring real reform to a Congress so desperately in need of it?

Having worked in Congress as a national security adviser for 31 years to both Republican and Democratic senators and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), I have observed Congress and both parties, up close and personal. The words "dereliction of duty" come to mind to describe the state Congress has brought itself to.

Dereliction of Duty

When the president in October 2002 sought authorization to attack Iraq whenever he wanted for as long as he wanted, virtually all Republicans, and many Democrats (who controlled the Senate at the time), responded with their own doctrine of preemptive political capitulation. None of the straws in the wind-there were quite a few-hinting it was a canard that Saddam had massive stocks of weapons of mass destruction were investigated. The Democratic leadership and its minions decided that it was politically smart to go along with Bush's war demands. Even on a question as profound as going to war, there was no interest in the facts, especially when those suggested a challenge to the political mainstream. That remains true today on the war and that other issue no one wants to talk about: impeachment.                                                                                   

As the war has proved, oversight is dead, and the Democrats helped bury it. For example, the Democrats, and a few Republicans, recently complained that some nasty lawmaker snuck into the recently enacted National Defense Authorization Act a provision to put out of business the only federal entity that has exercised any oversight into corruption in Iraq, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction-snuck being the operative word, and fallacy. The provision was in the bill for all to read, and some previously published newspaper accounts alerted any interested member of Congress to the issue.  If you think the new Democratic regime will usher in an era of informed and informing oversight, you might want to remind your congressional favorite that it would be helpful to read the bills before they become law.

Both parties have even shucked off the once-respected tradition of debate. Instead, members from both parties march into the House and Senate chambers to offer well, often professionally, scripted speeches.  The "debates" in "the world's greatest deliberative body"-what the Senate loves to call itself-are typically nothing more than read-off orations in seriatim. There is none of the give and take, even drama, that used to occur on a regular basis in the 1970s when I first started working there.

Given the exclusive power of the purse, Congress has chosen to overspend beyond all previous excesses. The examples are many. They include Congress' more than doubling the pork in defense bills to pay for goodies in home districts or states, while simultaneously raiding the very accounts that support war operations with training, weapons repair and spare parts-which are all in short supply. Of course, lawmakers raid the accounts while giving speeches on "supporting the troops."

Want more examples of abuse and corruption? Try homosexual, underage sex scandals; members selling themselves for used furniture and "previously owned" Rolls Royces; thousands of illicit dollars one member stored in his freezer, or the tearful resignations of others, on their way to jail.

Real Reform

To be sure, there is a flurry of congressional rule changes proposed by the Democrats. But if they are anything like the Republican "reforms" of 1995-implemented when the GOP took over after four decades of the Democrats' congressional domination-they will be pure cosmetics. We saw a precursor of things to come with the rules the Democrats offered earlier this year to retard pork and lobbyist abuses: the rules were filled with loopholes and failed to change the way Congress operates.

If the new Congress is serious at all about reform, it should start by presenting an accurate transcript of its proceedings in the Congressional Record. Today, the Record is no such thing. Members and their staff alter the transcript of proceedings every day, often editing them heavily. They also enter undelivered speeches into the Record as if they were read, allowing members to include remarks that would otherwise be challenged on the floor. The legislative history of bills is altered without any other member having the opportunity to correct the misleading insertion.