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Do-Nothing Democrats - Quelle Surprise!

By Ronald A. Cass

I can't play quarterback the way Tom Brady or Peyton Manning can, but like most Americans I'm happy after a big game to say what they did right or wrong. As any Monday morning quarterback knows, it's hard to do things but easy to complain, critique, and second-guess.

Democrats, after controlling Congress almost continuously from 1933 to 1995, were the minority party in the House of Representatives for a dozen years and for 10 of 12 years were the minority in the Senate, too. So, perhaps, it's not surprising that they've gotten very good at complaining about how the nation is governed and not so good at actually doing it.

But few people have connected that to the performance of the 110th Congress. With Congress out for its Memorial Day break, commentators across the nation are taking stock of its first quarter performance and concluding that the Democrats have come up dramatically short. From left and right alike, observers are drawing the same picture of a Do-Nothing Congress. And, happy or sad, most are proclaiming surprise.

After all, things looked very different last fall, when Nancy Pelosi was promising a Democratic Congress that within its first 100 hours would pass laws that would raise the minimum wage, bring the troops home from Iraq, expand health benefits, reform immigration laws, make college affordable for all, secure energy independence, and address broad taxing and spending issues. She also promised to "drain the swamp" - changing a Congress that failed to address ethical problems of individual members and that used "earmark" provisions to give pork to constituents and favors to lobbyists. Harry Reid and colleagues on the Senate side had similar, though more muted, messages.

After 140 days, however, congressional Democrats left town with no significant accomplishments, one long-delayed bill finally enacted into law, and lots to make fun of. There was no increase in morality, no magically bipartisan era, no sweeping enactment of a coherent agenda for change, akin to what Republicans promised in their Contract With America in 1994. Instead, the 110th Congress has been a combination of "now I'll get mine" and "now you'll get yours!"

It hasn't been pretty. And it isn't likely to get better. Only those who were paying very careful attention last fall saw this coming.

The seeds were planted in the strategy for winning last fall. Democrats Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel saw a road to getting back majorities in the Senate and House. Their strategy built on Republican negatives: public anger over scandals involving Mark Foley, Jack Abramoff, and Tom Delay, special interest earmarks, inflated spending, and a war that - judging from the daily drumbeat of bad news in mainstream media - was going badly without clear purpose or end-game.

Rather than push hard-core liberal themes that lost elections for a dozen years, Schumer and Emanuel followed a different path. Their plan was to find moderates or even conservatives to run as Democrats in potential swing districts, criticize the Bush Administration and Republicans, talk a lot about hope and civility and bipartisanship, and let the candidates say whatever their constituents wanted to hear. The strategy worked, giving Democrats majorities in both Houses of Congress.

Given the sources of the victory last fall, the story of this Congress has to be told in three parts: ethics, Iraq, and everything else. Ethics concerns included the misbehavior of individual congressmen as well as the systemic problems with earmarks and lobbyists.

From the very start, things got off on the wrong foot. Nancy Pelosi's first act as Speaker was to push anti-war activist and vocal critic of all things Republican, John Murtha, as her choice for House majority leader, despite serious issues respecting Murtha's ethics. The Democratic Caucus helped Ms. Pelosi out by rejecting her choice, but Pelosi has made Murtha her caucus' number one voice on war policy.

Another ethics problem for Democrats is William Jefferson of Louisiana, whose "frozen assets" consisted of $90,000 wrapped in foil in his freezer, marked bribe money demanded by Jefferson in exchange for helping a business secure government contracts. Jefferson was filmed taking the bribe, but his colleagues have not
censured him, and the work of the House Ethics Committee on this matter stopped when Democrats took over last January.

Ms. Pelosi has been eager to make a show of raising ethical standards, but not at the expense of her colleagues' or her own ability to bring home the bacon. She tacked an earmark for $25 million for California strawberry farmers onto the emergency appropriations bill for US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill, which the President just signed into law, ultimately was stripped of every significant Democrat initiative on Iraq but still became a wonderful Christmas tree decorated with provisions giving special favors - and $17 billion in extra spending - for the pet projects of dozens of Democrats. In addition to something for Ms. Pelosi, it has a $23 million earmark for Mr. Murtha's district. When criticized for that earmark, Mr. Murtha responded with a choice four-letter curse, and a threat to prevent his Republican critic from ever getting anything for his district. So much for civility and bipartisanship!

If the practice of earmarking hasn't ended, it has changed a bit - for the worse. House Appropriations Chair David Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, says he has so many requests for earmarks to add to major legislation - over 30,000 in five months - that he has no choice but to tack them on after work on the bill is complete and won't reveal them until after both Houses vote. The other real change is that not all earmarks are put in writing - now Democrats who don't want anyone to know what they're doing can simply phone in the instructions on where to send the money (a practice Washington insiders now call "phone-marking"), as Harry Reid did in a call to the Energy Department.

Far from draining the swamp, Democrats have been wallowing in it.

What about Iraq? On their way out of town, 109 days after President Bush requested supplemental funding for the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress finally passed a bill that could be signed into law. How it got there, however, is another story.

During the election cycle, many Democrats enjoyed backing from hard core, left-wing anti-war groups such as MoveOn.Org, while others were sent to Washington by voters who, if unhappy with the war in Iraq, are skeptical about solutions. Stuck between the Get Out Now crowd and moderate voters who don't want to encourage terrorists or put our troops in danger, and facing a certain veto by the President of any bill that impinged on presidential prerogatives, Democrats spent months on symbolic votes and non-binding resolutions. When they finally passed a bill, they announced that after their Memorial Day recess they would try to undo most of what it does.

The rest of the Democrats' legislative agenda has been on the shelf. The only part of it to become law was the minimum wage increase. And that followed a very curious route. Rather than pass that as a stand-alone bill in the first 100 hours - which they had more than enough votes to do - the leadership decided to marry the wage increase to the emergency supplemental defense funding bill, but only after taking separate votes on the two halves of the legislation. That way, members afraid of offending one or another supporting group could explain, à la John Kerry, how they voted for the legislation while voting against it, or only backed the legislation to get the parts their supporters like.

In place of legislation, we've had investigations. Lots of them. Into everything the Administration is doing - not so Congress can do something about it, but to make the point that Republicans are doing it wrong.

Just after the elections last fall, Senator Schumer warned that the Democrats' victory was less a mandate than a protest. He cautioned that if Democrats were merely obstructionist, opposing the President without actually trying to enact a positive legislative agenda, they would lose power quickly - and deservedly so.

The Democrats' leadership should have listened. President Bush, suffering abysmal poll numbers after six years in office, now has company - a Democratic Congress that in less than six months earned even lower poll numbers by showing more interest in posturing, payback, and pork than in coming to grips with real problems.

If Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Reid, and their colleagues decide to stay on the sidelines, second-guessing, shouting directions, and calling players over for a dressing down, they may well find themselves out of a job. After all, even Monday morning quarterbacks can be replaced.

Ronald A. Cass is President of Cass & Associates, PC, Dean Emeritus of Boston University School of Law, and served Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush as Commissioner and Vice-Chairman of the US International Trade Commission.

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