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.
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.
The TV cameras in the House and Senate chambers present a different problem. Currently, the House and Senate require cameras to focus on whoever is speaking, with little, if any, deviation. While the cameras entice members to pander more aggressively to constituencies, they also give the voters a real-time picture of the legislature.
The public would achieve a far more useful understanding of what is actually occurring if the cameras were to be permitted to show empty desks, snoozing octogenarians, the un-listening chatterers and all the rest in the chambers. Control of the cameras should be distributed to existing networks or others, selected jointly by leaders from both parties on a periodic basis, for airing to network viewers and the existing C-SPAN system.
Also, members of Congress need to be confronted with better information, particularly since American journalism is not meeting that need. The electronic and print media are preoccupied with poorly researched instant analysis and fluff. In covering a serious issue, such as the prospect and execution of war against Iraq, they routinely resort to what they think constitutes patriotism.
Congress desperately needs objective, accurate and complete information, unpolluted by partisanship. There is no such thing as Republican F-16 or a Democratic aircraft carrier. But the Armed Services Committees and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittees hire separate Democratic and Republican staffs, interjecting acute partisanship into national security issues, especially at the base information level.
Congress must introduce some minimal standards to bolster information on national security matters, and those standards should serve as a model for other subject areas. Staff members should have formal training or demonstrated experience in evaluation, auditing or investigations. The professional staff should work for members on both sides of the aisle. They should be hired and fired only by a joint decision of both the senior Democrat and Republican on committees. This was the case in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Chairman J. William Fulbright-famous for his oversight of the Indochina War. Further, all staff should be afforded "whistleblower" protection, which they are now specifically denied.
The staff's memoranda on substantive issues should be distributed to all members in the House and Senate and should be public documents when they are not by necessity classified. All memoranda that must be classified should be distributed to all members and cleared staff. It is just amazing how the knowledge that others will be reading the work improves the quality of congressional staff memos.
Retard Venal Temptation
A major cause of poor analysis on Capitol Hill is the revolving door. Human nature is too frail to permit any defense manufacturer to dangle the prospect of future employment before, during or after a staffer provides analysis of the pros and cons of multibillion-dollar defense contracts. And the prospect of employment with the Defense Department is just as problematic. Presidents and their Pentagons are every bit as anxious as commercial manufacturers to influence information in Congress. I have seen staffers conform their advice to what the Pentagon wants far more frequently than simply sell out for a fat job with a manufacturer. To keep things simple, staffers should be prohibited from taking any job with the Pentagon or any defense manufacturer for at least five years after they leave Capitol Hill.
New practices should also be adopted to reduce pork. For starters, members should be required to obtain a cost estimate of any proposed "earmark" from an independent entity, such as the Congressional Budget Office. They should also obtain an evaluation by the Government Accountability Office, or another entity independent of the Pentagon or defense contractors, on the need for and effectiveness of the proposed spending. Earmarks that are approved should be awarded to contractors through an open, nationwide contract competition-not granted to pre-selected local interests.