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Hung Up in Washington

DeLay’s zeal has had the effect of further polarizing the House along party lines, with the result that major legislation, from airline safety to expansion of Medicare, has been held up or passed only after the leadership or the White House exerted extraordinary pressures on reluctant Republicans. Reaching compromise on the final form of legislation even with Senate Republicans has been difficult. The increasing unwillingness to compromise is not only blocking legislation but, it is not overdramatic to say, is subverting fundamental concepts of democracy. The people’s business is not getting done. How can this happen if these representatives have to face their constituents every two years?

One answer lies in the frequent redistricting of House seats, in which both parties collude, and which has put more and more House seats out of contention. In each election, the number of contested House seats drops. In 2002, only between twenty-two and twenty-five out of the 435 House seats, or 5 percent, were genuinely contested. The result, Jim Jaffe, who previously worked on Capitol Hill, wrote recently in the Chicago Tribune, is that the very idea of democracy is being threatened. “By acting…to create districts in which a single party has an overwhelming majority,” Jaffe wrote, members of Congress “protect their jobs and make voting in general elections an empty exercise.” The increasing number of safe seats makes fewer and fewer members interested in compromise.

In his book, Daschle reveals several things we hadn’t known. He gives us a better sense than we had before of the chaos on Capitol Hill on September 11: there was a warning from the Capitol Police that a plane was headed toward the Capitol, bent on destroying it. The nation’s leaders there, ostensibly “plugged into some top-secret, high-tech source of instant information,” were in fact “as utterly clueless as everyone else.” The fire alarm system was never activated, so many people who worked in the Capitol didn’t know that an evacuation was taking place. There was complete confusion about where the senators were supposed to go. Some simply went home through the jammed traffic; some were finally directed to a decrepit building near the Capitol which housed the Capitol Police. There they watched in horror the television replays of the destruction of the two World Trade Center buildings and the attack on the Pentagon. Congressional leaders, unable to agree where they should go next, simply scattered, but then they were collected and evacuated by helicopter to one of the government’s several underground “relocation centers”—Daschle of course can’t tell us where—constructed during the cold war and containing desks, cubicles, and television monitors. That evening, after a heated debate about what they should do, they returned to the Capitol.

Daschle gives us a particularly telling account of what happened when envelopes containing deadly anthrax spores were delivered to his office, as well as the offices of two other senators. This was no “scare,” as it was frequently described at the time. It was a horror. Dozens of lives were at risk; squabbling federal agencies delayed delivery of the right medicine. The victims and their families were left in ignorance about what to do in this life-threatening situation. Daschle still doesn’t know who sent the anthrax; nor, apparently, does the FBI.

Daschle also tells us that he was troubled by the breadth of Bush’s declaration in his talk at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, that he would “rid the world of evil.” Daschle found it “a disturbingly unfocused and ill-defined mission, if ever there was one,” and he objected to Bush’s continual use of the word “evil.” But these concerns, he writes, were subsumed “by the inspiration and pride” he felt in Bush’s performance that day.

He also writes of the way the USA Patriot Act, which was passed in the sweep of emotion after September 11 and gave law enforcement agencies broad new powers, was modified by the Senate. The principal change required that the act be “sunset,” i.e., it would be reevaluated by the Congress after four years. But Daschle doesn’t give a clear sense of what is still wrong with the law even as modified. He fails to point out, for example, that it permits searches and seizures without a judicial warrant, authorizes surveillance of public libraries, and prevents Congress from overseeing how it is implemented.

Daschle displays unusually intense fury with Bush for saying in the autumn of 2002 that Democrats who were holding up the bill to create a Department of Homeland Security were “not interested in the security of the American people.” Many Democrats opposed provisions of the bill that were intended to carry out the administration’s longstanding goal of destroying civil service unions, which tend to back Democrats. What followed was the smear campaign against the Vietnam veteran Max Cleland and others who opposed those provisions: a Republican-sponsored ad showed a picture of Cleland, who had lost three limbs in Vietnam, alongside pictures of bin Laden and Hussein. He was defeated.

Fierce Senate partisanship was also evident in the bitter fights over Bush’s conservative nominations to the federal courts, which culminated in No-vember of 2003 in a Republican filibuster that achieved nothing. The Republicans were in effect filibustering themselves, holding up their own legislation. A number of Republican senators were unhappy because, they argued, Democrats on the Judiciary Com- mittee were, through various means, blocking Bush’s nominations. But it was a phony issue. In fact, according to committee sources, when the Democrats invoked a rule requiring that at least one minority member of the committee agree that it vote on a nomination, this rule was ignored by the committee chairman, Orrin Hatch. In fact, only a half-dozen have been blocked by Democrats in the committee. All but six of the 175 Bush nominations that reached the floor were approved; the rest were blocked by filibuster. Yet Bush, who shows little patience with the “advise and consent” role of the Senate, and some of the more conservative senators, including Santorum and Nickles, believed that the Republicans weren’t getting enough political advantage from making an issue over the blocked nominations, and so they decided on the filibuster. By contrast, during Clinton’s presidency, the Republicans held up more than sixty judicial nominees. Either way, the nomination system for federal judges has broken down.

Extreme partisanship also strongly affected major legislation in the 2003 session of Congress. The Medicare bill adopted by Congress and signed into law by Bush was put across by the drug and insurance industries, both of which have contributed a great deal of money to elected politicians, in particular to Republicans, and have strong influence on Capitol Hill. In amounting to a step toward the privatization of Medicare, a major goal (along with privatizing Social Security) of Bush and the right, the bill has been inspired by ideology as well as by the influence of money. It does nothing to deal with the fact that Medicare will be bankrupt in a decade, and will require a sizable increase in taxes to pay for it or a substantial paring back of benefits. The new prescription drug benefit included in the Medicare bill, minuscule when it is measured against the need, is a victim of the budget deficit, the Iraq war, and conservative ideologues who balk at establishing a new entitlement program. The bill also does nothing to lower the costs of drugs; on the contrary, it actually prohibits the federal government from bargaining over prices of drugs and other medical supplies and makes it extremely difficult for citizens to purchase American-made drugs at the lower prices at which they are available in Canada and other countries. Nor does the new drug benefit cover the middle class.

The White House tried to mitigate the negative political impact of seniors’ discovering what’s actually in the bill. It postponed implementing the new prescription drug program until 2006, while enabling seniors to purchase drug-discount cards before the 2004 election—even if they are useless for two years. Nevertheless, many older citizens have learned what’s in the new law, and they’re furious with the Republicans, as Democrats had hoped, as well as with the AARP (formerly called the American Association for Retired People) for going along with the drug companies and the insurers, with which the AARP does business.

Republicans allowed no House Democrats and only two Senate Democrats, Max Baucus and John Breaux, both of whom supported the Medicare bill, to participate in the House–Senate conference setting its final terms. It had been passed by the House by a five-vote margin (220–215) just before 6:00 AM, after the Republican leaders made extraordinary efforts to persuade reluctant members—a process that took three hours rather than the usual fifteen minutes for a roll-call vote. Republican House leaders made offers of campaign funds to reluctant conservatives; they also threatened one Republican, who was planning to retire, with cutting off money for his son, who was running to replace him. This sort of rough stuff is without recent precedent.

When the House was working on an energy bill last year, Democrats weren’t even given a room in which to meet to draft an alternative, and Democrats were excluded from the House– Senate negotiations. The final bill failed in the Senate because liberals felt that it was too generous toward energy companies, and fiscal conservatives felt that it contained too much “pork.” Frist couldn’t get enough votes to end a filibuster against it. Many senators opposed the bill’s provision granting immunity from lawsuits to manufac-turers of a gasoline additive (methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE) that pollutes water. Once again, there seemed no possibility of compromise on a vital issue.


One of the mysteries of the 2004 election is how large a part money will have in determining the next president. President Bush has amassed about $100 million and is aiming for an unprecedented $200 million. As in 2000, he’s rejecting federal matching funds, which would require limits on spending. So are John Kerry and Howard Dean. Thus, the campaign finance law, the central reform put in place after Watergate, that specifically provides federal matching funds for presidential campaigns, has been weakened severely, if not fatally. Partly as a result, some candidates will have far more money available for campaign advertising and other activities, such as getting out the vote, than others. Still, though much is made of the importance of ads in political campaigns there’s no way to precisely measure their impact. The pollsters, consultants, and ad producers, who stand to make many millions of dollars, nevertheless warn their clients that they must run a large number of ads or lose the election.

Bush has never liked the idea of campaign finance reform, though he had to pretend to during the 2000 primaries (when John McCain was challenging him) and when the campaign finance reform bill was going through Congress under McCain’s leadership. But he tried to undermine McCain’s efforts to pass the bill. In fact, few elected officials favor reform, but many of them feel they have to pretend that they do because of the strength of the reform movement among swing voters. Nevertheless, they try, through devious maneuvers, to weaken or even kill the legislation as it moves through Congress.

The ruling of the Supreme Court in December upholding the McCain-Feingold law passed by Congress in 2002 was of great consequence, even though it didn’t require changes in the way the candidates were conducting their campaigns because the new law had already gone into effect in November 2002. (Bush signed it into law reluctantly and even secretly, excluding McCain from the signing in March 2002.) The law abolished “soft money”—unlimited contributions to candidates by individuals, corporations, or labor unions—and placed some curbs on broadcast ads that are called “issue” ads but that in fact attack candidates. The new law barred the use of corporate or union funds to pay for such ads thirty days before a primary and sixty days before an election.

Still, under the new law, “issue” ads can be paid for by aggregating “hard money”—individual donations by contributors of $2,000—or by a political action committee, or PAC, to which contributions of $5,000 can be made. There is no limit on the amount of “hard money” a PAC can spend for such ads. But there are various limits on the total amount individuals can donate to campaigns for federal office in each electoral cycle. The law also makes it illegal for federal officeholders to raise soft money.

In upholding the law, the Court rejected the impassioned argument of opponents of reform that the new law (and virtually every campaign finance reform law) infringed the First Amendment because, so it was argued, in making donations, citizens were exercising their right of free speech. Some who opposed the law and earlier bills on constitutional grounds were expressing a sincerely held view; for others the constitutional argument has been a useful cover for opposing any limits on raising or spending campaign money or on curbing bogus “issue” ads that are actually ads attacking a candidate, sometimes with mysterious funding.

The curb on broadcasting was considered the most vulnerable part of the bill. The Supreme Court held that there were ample precedents in prior decisions and examples of corruption in political conduct to abolish soft money and to place restrictions on sham issue ads. Moreover, as the bill’s backers carefully drafted it and guided it through Congress, they had two criteria: that Congress would approve it and that it would be held constitutional. In doing so, they made compromises, but they nevertheless enacted a significant reform bill.

In taking the steps they did, Congress, and then the Supreme Court, put an end to, or at least severely limited, the “shakedown”: the implicit, and sometimes explicit, understanding that there will be favors in exchange for a contributor’s money, whether access to a candidate, a call to a regulatory agency, or consideration of a contributor’s interests when it comes time for congressional votes. They can affect regulations by the numerous federal agencies. Contributions may influence whether a bill will be considered and what it will contain.

The concern for raising money indisputably affects the votes of elected officeholders. Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois, candidly told me a few years ago that when he went to the floor, he couldn’t avoid thinking about how his vote might affect future contributions. In Washington, access, or the illusion of it, is practically everything. It’s the beginning point for achieving one’s purposes. The shakedowns could take the form of a conversation or something more elaborate and head-spinning: the $50,000 “coffees” and sleepovers during the Clinton administration; cruises; golfing weekends.

On the face of it, one would be tempted to conclude that the Bush administration, sympathetic as it is to corporate interests, is no less corrupt than Clinton’s in skewing policy in the anticipation of, or as a reward for, contributions; but Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Committee and now head of the pro-reform Campaign Legal Center, argues that the Bush administration’s policies in favor of business arise from genuine beliefs, not corruption. He points out that the highest officials, Bush and Cheney, come from the corporate world and have been formed by it. The Bush administration’s actions in cutting taxes, gutting regulations, and doing large favors for the energy, coal, steel, and drug industries, Potter argues, have been propelled by a pro-business ideology, and, in the case of the coal and steel industries, also by the desire to win votes in crucial industrial states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and West Virginia). That’s not corruption; it’s American democracy as we know it. The result is that the rich and powerful have more access and influence than ordinary citizens. That certain industries raise a great deal of money for Bush, Potter says, is a result of the policies that the administration follows, not the impetus for them. “When they want to do energy policy they summon the energy companies because that’s who they know and where they’re coming from,” Potter told me recently.

Yet now, with individual donations strictly limited, candidates for office may still feel beholden to people who gather a large number of $2,000 or lesser contributions from employees, friends, and the names in their rolodexes. The 2000 Bush campaign had its “Pioneers,” who raised $100,000. Now Bush has added a new category, Rangers, who raise $200,000. Such “bundling” is not illegal, but reformers’ efforts to abolish it have been blocked, mainly by congresswomen who are protecting EMILY’S List, which backs pro-choice Democratic women running for office. So large fund-raisers are still courted, flattered, and appointed, and reformers will continue to press for outlawing “bundling.”

Already various groups have been formed by close allies of both political parties, to act as conduits for large contributions to candidates for the 2004 election. (Democrats have set up The Media Fund, run by longtime Clinton loyalist Harold Ickes, and America Coming Together; Republicans have established Americans for a Better Country and the Leadership Forum.) Reformers have filed a court case arguing that such dummy committees are illegal. (The Republicans’ outrage over contributions of more than ten million dollars by the financier George Soros to groups backing Democrats is a splendid example of political hypocrisy.5 )

McCain and the other sponsors of the new campaign finance law foresaw that there would be efforts to get around it, but they consider finance reform a continuing process in which reformers try to fix the most blatant problems; and then, when a new problem arises and a consensus can be formed that something must be done, they move on to the new one. Though the reformers can take satisfaction from what they have achieved so far, they know that they already have new problems to deal with.

Unlike 2000, this time the voters know that it matters a great deal who is elected president. Almost everything the federal government does, therefore every citizen, is affected. The President has formidable advantages: the constant publicity that comes with occupying the White House; vast amounts of money; the power to affect at least some events; the ability to perform what may be convincing stunts. He may have lucky breaks, such as the capture of bin Laden, before the election.

Bush’s denigrators to the contrary, he isn’t dumb. He is inarticulate, uncurious, and anti-intellectual, to be sure, but also shrewd in limited but important ways: in meetings he is said to go quickly to the main point,6 and he’s a very effective politician. According to polls, much of the public finds him genial and easygoing, which is a political advantage, even if it’s a deceptive impression. Like his mother, who also puts on a good show, Bush is tough on those around him and he can be mean. One often hears the fuzzy proposition that many Americans want to like their president and that, with some exceptions, they usually vote for the seemingly more likable candidate.

Still, Bush is not at this stage unbeatable: his foreign and economic policies have stirred widespread opposition. According to John Zogby’s polling, even after the capture of Saddam Hussein only 45–47 percent of respondents said they would vote to reelect him—not at all a good sign for a supposedly popular president. A great deal will depend on unpredictable events.

January 14, 2004

  1. 5

    For Soros’s angry indictment of the Bush administration’s foreign and anti-terrorist policies, see his recent book, The Bubble of American Supremacy: Correcting the Misuse of American Power (Public Affairs, 2003).

  2. 6

    For a contrasting view, see the comments of Paul O’Neill, former secretary of the treasury, in Ron Suskind’s book The Price of Loyalty (Simon and Schuster, 2004).

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