"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

One Party Government and the Absence of Congressional Oversight

Historian Lewis L. Gould has noted that Republicans have become so arrogant and high-handed in the exercise of power that they have raised doubts about whether the G.O.P. “really believe[s] in the two-party system as a core principle of politics.”
Since 1996, the GOP has transformed itself into a European-style parliamentary party in which members were epected to walk in lockstep. They came to show great disdain for the old American legislative process which entailed give and take between the two parties.

The Republicans lost a number of House seats in the election of 2000, but they still had a majority and compensated for their loss by reducing Democratic representation on House committees. This high-handed behavior was only briefly noted in a few of the nation’s better newspapers. The Democrats’ previous abuses of power pale by comparison with those of the New Right’s abuses of power pale by comparison those of Democrats, who sometimes ran roughshod over Republicans in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they were clearly losing their grip on the House of Representatives. The right-wing tendency to abuse power became even more apparent in 2001, when Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. The House Republicans slashed Democratic representation on some committees even though they had narrowed the margin between parties in the election of 2000.

Even though Republicans had increased their margin in the House in the election of 2002, they enacted new restrictions, which would make it even more difficult for the Democratic minority to get their legislative proposals to the floor for consideration. From 1995 to 2006, very few important Democratic proposals were to reach the house floor. By 2002, House Democrats had been driven out of the caucus room they had used for seven years and sent to a basement room. They were sometimes not even permitted there or anywhere else in the Capitol, which made planning difficult. Democrats on committees were frequently not permitted to caucus in committee rooms and not infrequently were not invited to Committee meetings. When they did attend committee meetings, they often were not permitted to attempt to amend legislation that was being marked up.

Before Congress renewed and extended the Patriot Act, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings in the summer of 2005. Hearings cannot be ended except by unanimous consent, but chairman James Sensenbrenner, Jr. became so exasperated with criticisms of the measure that he graveled the meeting at an end, saying the proceedings were “irrelevant.” His staff quickly shut down the microphones and left the room. When John Conyers requested space to hold hearings on the Downing Street Memos, he was given space-- hardly a foregone conclusion these days. But the area was no larger than a “large closet,” and Speaker Hastert scheduled eleven major votes during the hearing to dissuade representatives from attending.

The first step toward one party government was to enforce tight discipline within the Republican Party. Beginning in the 1980s, the GOP began tightening party discipline, and, once in power, sought ways to limit Democratic participation in the legislative process. Senator Philip Gramm said in the mid-1990s that the objective of these steps was to show voters that Republicans could get results Another tool, that Graham did not mention, was the use of “earmarks” to reward compliant Republican Congressmen. They in turn used them to persuade lobbyists to maximize contributions to the GOP. In the ten years since Republicans took control of the House, earmarked pork barrel legislation increased by 873%. By the turn of the century, House Re publicans were very well disciplined and certain to vote as Tom DeLay, the new majority leader, directed. In 2003, Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay took more steps to end the seniority system. The Speaker ruled that a panel dominated by the leadership would select committee chairmen, and he ignored seniority in selecting chairmen who were report directly to DeLay. It was made clear that they were expected to be good team players.

This put an end to the idea that chairmen under the Republicans were to enjoy autonomy. Richard W. Pombo, an opponent of environmental legislation was elevated over several senior members to head the Resources Committee, and moderate Christopher Shays, despite his seniority, was denied chairmanship of the Government Reform Committee in part because he backed campaign finance legislation. Hastert called in Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey to chastise him for not supporting the leadership on bankruptcy legislation and other legislation. Marge Roukema of New Jersey was one of the first moderates whom the leadership blocked from becoming a committee chairman. She decided to leave Congress in 2002.

These steps were also driven by intense ideological fervor and probably the belief that their opponents, who represented error, deserved no legislative rights. By 2003, the GOP had become the most disciplined legislative party in the Western world. It had also greatly reduced Democratic involvement in the process in both Houses. Bending and ignoring the formal rules and long-standing procedural usages in both chambers called “the regular order” accomplished this. By far the worst abuses occurred in the House of Representatives, but there were many infractions in the Senate as well, and it can be expected that the Senate will continue on this path as zealots from the House move into the other chamber.

Senate Republicans exhibited considerably more discipline than they had before the party’s transformation. . Even though there are several moderate Republican senators, they had a history of voting as they were told once pressure was exerted. Maine’s Senator Olimpia Snowe, a respected moderate, played an important role in preventing an investigation of the Bush administration’s domestic spying. Another respected moderate, Arlen Specter, also had a “ sad habit of bowing to the right wing when the chips are down.” The fact was that the moderates were really not very moderate in their votes. Senate Democrats had the ability to employ a filibuster, but there are so many New Democratic senators that this was not likely to occur very often. There were filibusters that prevented votes on four extremely conservative Republican judicial nominees, but almost all other Bush nominees were confirmed.

In 2003, at least one Republican staffer on the Judiciary committee was able to access Democratic computers because of a technician’s carelessness. From the spring of 2002 until April 2003, they accessed information on meetings, correspondence, and Democratic strategy in the Judiciary committee. Sometimes they provided it to the right wing press, including Robert Novak. One staffer was taken off the job temporarily on a paternity leave. He was punished with a brief administrative leave. The others were not identified, and the matter attracted very little attention.

On the PBS television program Now, Bill Moyers said, “For the first time in the memory of anyone alive, the entire federal government--the Congress, the executive, and the judiciary--is united behind a right-wing agenda for what George W. Bush believes he now has a mandate.” One party government has also meant “Americans have not been exposed to serious Congressional debate on any major issue....” Moreover, legislative scrutiny of the executive branch has been almost non-existent or consisted of crude-cover-ups. Congressman Henry Waxman noted that the GOP House invested 120 hours of hearings looking into whether Bill Clinton abused the White House Christmas list for political gain, but it spent only 12 hours looking into the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The two exceptions were oversight of handling of the Katrina disaster and Senator Arlen Specter’s brief investigation of warrantless spying on the international communications of American citizens. But in that case, the hearings only involved legal theories about whether warrantless eavesdropping was legal. The two intelligence committees refused to look into the nature of the spying, confining themselves to crafting legislation to legalize what the administration was doing.

Pat Roberts, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee at first refused to permit the committee to vote on whether to have any kind of hearings whatsoever. Later the Republican majority on the committee agreed to block hearings. Instead, they agreed to back legislation legalizing warrantless taps of conversations with suspicious foreigners for forty-five days. After that time,. The Bush administration would have to report to subcommittees of Congress if it still did not want to seek warrants. The committee majority essentially upheld the legality of a program they knew little about and agreed to help codify presidential claims of extraordinary authority. The New York Times’ “The Death of the Intelligence Panel” described this craven surrender to the executive. Of course the panel continued to meet, but its majority were merely willing pawns of the White House. Its majority has consistently stonewalled on carrying out a fair investigation of whether the administration had misrepresented intelligence in order to lead the nation to war in Iraq.

The most shocking case of failed oversight involved the refusal of the majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee to look into claims that three telephone companies were feeding various communications they processed to the NSA. Senator Specter said he wanted to subpoena the telephone executives, but Vice President Richard Cheney went behind Specter’s back to persuade the other Republicans to undercut the chairman. This matter also demonstrated the administration’s contempt for Congress and the separation of powers. The most bizarre case of Right wing Republicans refusing to exercise oversight involved the House Intelligence Committee. Chairman Pete Hoekstra refused to interview former NSA employee Russell Trice because some committee members lacked sufficiently high security clearances.

Sherman has written African American Baseball: A Brief History, which can be acquired from LuLu Publishing on line.http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?search_forum

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About Me

Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!