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By Jay Cost

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Michael Steele: Half a Chairman

I've been following the travails of Michael Steele for a few months now, and I'd say the latest news is pretty gosh darned huge. From the Washington Times:

Capitulating to critics on the Republican National Committee, embattled Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele has signed a secret pact agreeing to controls and restraints on how he spends hundreds of millions of dollars in party funds and contracts, The Washington Times has learned.

The "good governance" agreement revives checks and balances Mr. Steele resisted implementing for RNC contracts, fees for legal work and other expenditures that were not renewed after the 2008 presidential nominating contest.

The agreement, proposed by several current and former RNC officials, goes further, making 33-year RNC veteran Jay Banning, who was fired by Mr. Steele along with his deputy last month, an on-call adviser to the RNC treasurer. Mr. Banning was seen as a trusted liaison to RNC members critical of Mr. Steele's tenure and financial management.

From the looks of it, the outlines of the agreement restore some old rules that had expired at the end of last year. Moreoever, Steele's opponents have also managed to put Jay Banning (the RNC's chief financial officer until he was fired by Steele) in a watchdog position over Steele. This is an agreement that Steele initially opposed. According to the Times, he had this to say in an email to RNC members a few weeks ago:

"I have just returned from an overseas trip to learn that the five of you have developed a scheme to transfer the RNC chairman's authority to the treasurer and the executive committee," Mr. Steele wrote in an e-mail he sent to Randy Pullen, the RNC's elected treasurer, and Blake Hall, the committee's general counsel, as well as to three former RNC officers.

In the e-mail, obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. Steele argues that he always has embraced the "transparency, competitive bidding and good governance" that Mr. Pullen and the others said their resolution aims to achieve...

"It is of course not lost on me that each of you worked tirelessly down to the last minute in an effort to stop me from becoming chairman," Mr. Steele wrote.

And yet now he is accepting the agreement. What is this all about?

It's impossible to know for sure what is going on. The party organizations are semi-private, and simply not required to tell us exactly what they're up to. Nevertheless, from the looks of it, Steele's early decision to fire every RNC employee rubbed some RNC members the wrong way; they wanted to get greater controls over the new chairman. Steele - perhaps facing a no-confidence vote later this month if he refused - finally gave them what they wanted.

Is this the end of Steele's trouble? My gut tells me no. Frankly, I think that if the RNC is this worried about Steele - they should just get rid of him. The party's position in government is now extremely tenuous. The 2010 midterm is of critical importance to the GOP, and the RNC is the chief source of party funds. There is little margin for error. Can the party afford a hamstrung chairman whom members have little confidence in? One can't help but wonder if these half-measures will make things worse rather than better.

-Jay Cost