The GOP Record
The roots of Republican failures in Congress.
Monday, October 2, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
The 109th Congress has gone home to fight for re-election, and the best testament to its accomplishments is that very few Republicans are running on them. They're running instead against the peril to the country if the Nancy Pelosi Democrats take power.
We'll know in six weeks if this liberal fright mask is enough to save the GOP majority, but it's not too soon to say that Republicans in the 109th have been a major disappointment. The best thing about this Congress is that by doing little at least it did little harm. But despite their best chance in 50 years to reform the creaky institutions of the welfare state, Republicans couldn't maintain the unity or discipline to achieve nearly any of what they promised in 2004.
The one great exception is the confirmation of two new Supreme Court Justices. GOP Senators in particular helped to steer President Bush away from his underwhelming initial choice of White House counsel Harriet Miers toward the distinguished Samuel Alito. With the High Court playing an ever more decisive role in our political life, this may be Mr. Bush's most significant legacy beyond the war on terror.
Republicans also deserve credit for financing the war, which is more than many Democrats say they'll do if they run Capitol Hill. The extension for two more years, through 2010, of the 15% rate on dividends and capital gains will also help sustain the economic growth that is throwing off record revenues to pay for the war even as the budget deficit declines. The recent compromise on terrorist interrogations may also turn out to be historic, putting Congress's imprimatur on the Presidential powers needed to fight an enemy that violates the normal rules of war. Toss in bankruptcy and class-action reform, and some free-trade agreements. That's about it for the good news.
On the liability side, the list of flops is extensive, starting with making the tax cuts permanent, repealing the estate tax and immigration reform. Senate Democrats did their part to kill the first two, but House Republicans get credit for fanning public worry about immigration and then pretending that a 700-mile fence will solve the problem.
Social Security reform was never going to be easy, and Mr. Bush's war-driven decline in job approval meant he couldn't move any Democrats. But that still doesn't excuse such prominent Republicans as Tom Davis (Virginia) and Roy Blunt (Missouri) for resisting their President's reform effort behind the scenes. So frightened were they that they never even brought the subject up for a vote.
Perhaps the most puzzling abdication was the GOP failure to do anything at all on health care. The window for saving private health care from government encroachment is closing, and both business and workers are feeling the pinch from rising costs. Yet Republicans failed to make health-care savings accounts more attractive, failed to let business associations offer their own health plans, and failed even to bring to a vote Arizona Congressman John Shadegg's bill to avoid costly state mandates by letting health insurance be marketed across state boundaries. The biggest winner here is Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 Presidential campaign.
Republicans have many explanations for their paltry record, some of them even accurate. The troubles in Iraq sapped Mr. Bush's support, dividing Republicans while uniting Democrats who saw a chance to regain power this fall. Hurricane Katrina blew away whatever hope there was of spending restraint and changed the national conversation from GOP priorities. And Tom DeLay's ethical troubles, and eventual ouster as Majority Leader, created a leadership vacuum.
Yet none of this excuses the more fundamental problem, which is that too many Republicans now believe their purpose in Washington is keeping power for its own sake. The reform impulse that won the House in 1994 has given way to incumbent protection. This is the root of the earmarking epidemic, which now mars every spending bill and has become a vast new opportunity for Member corruption. This is also part of what corrupted felons Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, Jack Abramoff, Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon. Power for its own sake also explains the House GOP's decision to join Senate Democrats in killing serious reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, despite $16 billion in accounting mistakes or fraud. The Members are in bed with the housing subsidy lobby.
Even amid all of this scandal, many Republicans still refuse to acknowledge any problem. Appropriators continue to resist major budget reform, and the same Republicans who gave a Democratic President the line-item veto in the 1990s refused to give a weaker version to a GOP President this year. No wonder so many loyal Republican voters have been telling pollsters they're not sure if they'll vote this year.
With his party down in the polls, Mr. Bush has tried to recast the midterm election as a referendum on the war on terror. This strategy may yet save Republicans from losing Congress, both because the war is the most important issue of our time and because the Democrats are calling for retreat in Iraq and essentially for a return to the antiterror policies of the 1990s. But it is no credit to the performance of Republicans in this Congress that their best argument for re-election is the wartime flaws of their opponents