Politics & Policy

Kicking and Screaming

Democrats turn Congress into a playpen.

After the 2006 elections, Democrats exalted in their new majority, showering their base with airy promises about what they would do with their newfound legislative power. They had been out of the driver’s seat for 12 years, and were clearly itching to throw the congressional machine into gear. But running Congress is a privilege, one that Democrats have wasted no time in abusing. The coming months will hold many tough legislative battles, and if they persist with their recent behavior, they may find that even their own agenda is threatened.

Speaker Pelosi and her leadership team wasted no time in thumbing their noses at House rules and traditions. At the beginning of the summer, they attempted to ram through a tax increase by changing a procedural rule that allowed the minority to speak out against bad policy. This rule had been in place since 1822 — almost 40 years before the first income tax even existed. It was a Back to the Future approach to legislating, trying to change the past in order to influence the present.

What works in the movies, however, doesn’t fly on the floor in Congress. Thanks to Republican protests and some smart maneuvering by Minority Leader John Boehner, the majority’s attempt at procedural time travel was stymied. But the incident showed the low tactics to which the Democrats were willing to resort in order to have their way on the floor of Congress.

The tactics were out in force once again last week. On Thursday night, Democrat Michael McNulty (D., N.Y.) gaveled a vote closed before the official tally had been read, thus manipulating a tight vote so that it finished in their favor. The remaining days of the session saw a string of unbecoming conduct from the majority, including votes unfairly blocked and floor records carefully cleaned to suit Democratic agendas and hide their misbehavior.

This pattern of behavior sets an ominous precedent for what we can expect from Congress when it reconvenes following the August recess. The first legislative battles will be over health-care and budget issues as Democrats attempt to fund their pet projects and fuel governmental growth. Liberal activists are growing restless, and many feel betrayed that the Democrats did not immediately defund the war. The Democrats will be eager to curry favor with their base by proving their progressive bona fides with a host of government-expanding measures.

This sets the stage for a conflict of priorities between Democrats wanting to bolster entitlement programs with new spending, and Republicans anxious to rebuild their fiscal conservative brand before the 2008 election. Republicans will need to continue their opposition to government-sponsored health care. The majority sees changes to the nation’s health-care system as opportunities to take control of nearly one fifth of the national economy, while Republicans seek ways to give families and individuals greater control over their health-care options.

Of course, liberals claim that their only intent is to “help people,” but this merely proves one of my axioms: “The politics of greed comes wrapped in the language of love.” Look at SCHIP, the health-care bill recently passed by Democrats in both the House and the Senate. Liberal health-care advocates constantly sound alarms about the nation’s uninsured, but for 1.7 million people, this bill would merely swap out existing private insurance with government health insurance, creating a massive health-care handout and shunting the cost of that care onto the taxpayer.

The good news is that President Bush has indicated he might veto the bill. Advocates for socialized health care use proposals like this to slowly, stealthily increase the federal government’s role in health care. While the party’s presidential candidates demagogue the issue and propose more sweeping action, congressional Democrats take the opportunity to pass smaller measures that, over time, still add tremendous bulk to the nation’s already sizable government health-care infrastructure. Republicans in Congress should support Bush in his veto threat, for he’ll need all the backing he can get.

The most significant upcoming clashes, however, will come over the budget. Congress and the White House must agree on a spending plan before October 1 or risk a government shutdown. The House has already finalized its 12 appropriations bills — those responsible for so-called “discretionary spending” — but the Senate has passed only one, leaving little time to meet the deadline. What’s more, the proposals in the house include hefty handouts to party loyalists and billions in excessive spending. The Labor/HHS/Education bill alone would spend more than $11 billion more than what President Bush requested and $7 billion more than what was spent in the previous fiscal year.

President Bush has threatened to veto eight of the appropriations bills, a natural response to such flagrant displays of fiscal irresponsibility. But if a compromise can’t be reached by the start of October, lawmakers could find themselves once again staring facing the possibility of a government shutdown. In many ways, it looks a lot like 1995, when disagreements between Republicans in Congress and the Clinton White House led to a partial shutdown. In that case, the Republicans pursued their budget priorities, and we took the heat from the press when budget talks stalled. Fiscal conservatives today should learn from this experience and apply a lighter touch to negotiations while still pursuing sound budgetary policy.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) has proposed a sound strategy of passing continuing resolutions (CRs) that require spending to be held down to the previous year’s levels. Rather than forcing a conflict, these resolutions offer the opportunity to continue government operations while holding down spending. And, by holding up the rest of their legislative agenda, they may help push Democrats to agree to more reasonable, restrained spending.

And where will that lead us? Later in the year, energy and agriculture will once again become key issues. At the end of the recent session, House Democrats pushed through a $16 billion energy tax, showing once again that their talk of lowering gas prices is empty rhetoric. A $45 billion farm bill also made its way through the House. If Democrats continue with their present agenda of expanding government, they will show voters what a tax and spend liberal is all about. Meanwhile, Republican can use this opportunity to press for the spending cuts and program reforms our country desperately needs, and, in the process, remind voters what governing philosophy serves the best interests of the nation’s taxpayers.

— Former House majority leader (R., Tex.), Dick Armey is chairman of Freedomworks.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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