Depending on recounts, rulings, and other surprises, the incoming U.S. Senate could remain minimally in Republican hands or, as if by a bipartisan laser, split in half. In this precarious circumstance, GOP senators would be wise to oust Trent Lott as majority leader and choose someone with principles and courage to replace him.
The Mississippian has been a colossal disappointment on both politics and policy. Since mid 1996, he mainly has succeeded in making Republicans nostalgic for the market-friendly, idea-driven leadership of Bob Dole.
While Lott cannot be blamed entirely for losing GOP Senate seats in this month’s bizarre election, his responsibilities include the maintenance or expansion of his majority. Instead, Republican strength could fall from 54 seats to 52, 51, or even 50 (depending on tabulations in Florida and Washington State). Keeping Lott as leader essentially would reward him for these defeats, excuse him from accountability and further establish him as the personification of the Peter Principle.
Senate Republicans will confront a larger and more cantankerous Democratic caucus. If George W. Bush wins the Oval Office, Democrats will say that Al Gore’s popular-vote majority (if it holds) negates a Bush mandate. They will resist Bush’s plans to cut taxes, modernize education and — most ambitiously — partially privatize Social Security.
If Gore prevails, Senate Democrats will be emboldened by a White House captured through Florida’s lawyerama. They will demand that Republicans “unify the country” by helping Gore expand or inaugurate 285 different government programs at a cost of $2.8 trillion in new spending.
Should Democrats threaten filibusters to achieve their ends, Republicans should call their bluff and force them to tie up the Senate floor and argue publicly against lower taxes, stronger pensions, and better schools.
Alas, Lott won’t let Democrats expose themselves as obstacles to limited government and individual liberty. Rather than make them pay the political costs of their obstinacy, Lott has offered Democrats random acts of kindness and senseless acts of surrender.
“He has shoved his own Republican colleagues and his supposedly conservative allies out of the way so he can trade politically activist nominees for political crumbs,” says Thomas Jipping of the Washington-based Free Congress Foundation. He recalls a September 29, 1999 meeting where Lott promised conservatives he would not consider Marsha Berzon and Richard Paez, two controversial court appointees, “unless we have the votes to defeat them,” as Lott said. Last March 9, Lott allowed their confirmation. Democrats, in turn, accepted Lott’s friend — Tupelo, Miss., mayor Glenn McCullogh — for the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Lott even swapped multiple federal judgeships for Democratic approval of campaign-finance reform foe Bradley Smith to the Federal Election Commission. “It’s almost beyond words,” Jipping told me. Lott “ended up trading 16 lifetime appointments to the federal bench for one term-limited bureaucrat.”
Lott also sold out House Republicans during last year’s trial of President Clinton. “You’re not going to dump this garbage on us,” Lott told GOP impeachment managers, House Judiciary investigative counsel David Schippers reports. Lott gave Democrats everything they wanted: a brief inquiry with no live witnesses and boxes of evidence kept secret. How bipartisan.
Lott, no fiscal conservative, has paraded his fellow pork barrelers into the trough. He secured $500 million to build a warship in his native Pascagoula that the Pentagon doesn’t want.
Last year, Lott supported a $100 million authorization for the federal Overseas Private Investment Corporation to co-own foreign projects with politically connected shipyards in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. “It’s the kind of thing I usually like,” Lott told the Wall Street Journal.
Lott also licked his chops over a pork-laden “emergency spending” bill last year. “I said it sucks, but let’s pass it anyway,” he declared. Showing this pork addict some tough love would signal free marketeers and taxpayers that the 107th Congress will at least attempt to behave like Republicans.
Assistant majority leader Don Nickles is thrifty and ideologically sound. The Oklahoman’s easygoing demeanor plays well on TV, though one wonders how ferocious he would be in a fight. Tennessee’s Fred Thompson combines movie-star charisma with a maverick streak and a solidly libertarian vote history. Kansas’s Sam Brownback is a newer face. That’s OK, especially given his firmly pro-market record. Republican principles would fare better in the hands of any of these men.
The entire GOP agenda faces steep odds. If Senate Republicans want to advance free-market ideas, they need Nickles, Thompson, or Brownback pushing with them — rather than two more years of Trent Lott riding the emergency brake.