AEI's Ornstein: Hhmm... 2010 Starting to Look Like 1994

It’s cute nowadays to get into debates with Democrats about the supposedly helpless and directionless Republican party. They really think their party is doing just fine.

They think that because their fans in the press write hopefully about ‘green shoots,’ the economy isn’t going to crash under the weight of unsustainable debt. They think that because Barack Obama polls well on his handling of foreign policy, it doesn’t matter that Hugo Chavez is arming rebels to topple regimes friendly to the US, and that North Korea is thumbing its nose at us, and that Iran is weaponizing to threaten Israel. They don’t even notice yet that their fundraising is disappointing, and their base is losing faith in their leaders in Washington. They don’t realize that their policies are opposed by a majority of Americans, and that dozens of prominent Democrats may soon be tarred with new ethics scandals.

They don’t see the canary gasping in the coalmine.

Then every once in a while, you run into someone who suddenly seems to get it:

The first eruption of that populist anger came in 1989, with a pay raise for federal officials that had been endorsed by outgoing President Ronald Reagan, incoming President George H. W. Bush and all Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders from Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) to the aforementioned Gingrich. But that broad bipartisan support meant nothing to average voters struggling with a sluggish economy and stagnant wages…

That was followed in 1992 by the House Bank brouhaha, revealed by Roll Call, which showed that a slew of House Members had overdrawn their accounts at the House Bank…

The next train wreck was predictable. For some good reasons related to separation of powers issues, Congress exempted itself from regulation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and other executive agencies. But to the public (and to the minority party), this was another clear case of an imperial, insulated, pampered and arrogant Congress applying onerous laws to others while exempting itself…

I raise all this history because it is déjà vu all over again. The populist anger is back, and not just in the United States — the reaction in Britain to parliamentary expense abuses is directly reminiscent of the reaction to the House Bank. So far, it has not been directed at Congress, in part because the 111th Congress has been so remarkably productive, in part because of the popularity of President Barack Obama, in part because of the ineptitude of the minority party leadership. But one can see the train wreck coming.

Some of the seeds go back to former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), preceded by Jack Abramoff and former Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Jim Traficant (D-Ohio), et al. Of course, some of the cases contributed mightily to the Republican loss of Congress after 12 years of rule, but all underscored a continuing public sense that Congress was more concerned with feathering its own nest than with the problems facing average Americans in their everyday lives.

Throw in Illinois’ former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and Sen. Roland Burris (D), a case getting more and more putrid. Add the Congressional bailouts of banks and their executives and the auto industry, amplified especially by the American International Group bonuses. The scapegoats now are AIG and auto and bank executives, but that can switch in an instant to politicians.

Now throw in the PMA Group and Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.). The Murtha case, of course, goes well beyond PMA, to include throwing sensitive national security-related earmarks with abandon to companies in his district that were inept or corrupt and to rewarding or punishing companies that used the right lobbying firm or did the right business with Murtha’s relatives. Include also executive officials in the Defense Department and elsewhere giving no-bid contracts to companies with ties to Murtha and his family members to curry favor with the powerful lawmaker. I can’t sort out from this vantage point what is illegal or not, but it all stinks to high heaven…

But if Congress wants to avoid the kind of public anger that engulfed the political process in 1994 and 2006, it needs to go much further. The leadership needs to avoid any sense that it is protecting Members because of their personal ties to them. And Congress needs to enact further reforms to make the earmarking and contracting process work better.

The House might start with Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) idea to delink earmarks from campaign contributions. My own idea to create independent commissions to rank needs and projects in Congressional districts akin to Senators’ judicial selection panels would help. And addressing the issue of contracting — which is what Cunningham did, getting bribes in return for steering sensitive defense and intelligence contracts to the corrupt companies offering the bribes — is critical for reform.

Every contract issued by the federal government needs to be put online before the contract takes effect, with a special scrutiny for every no-bid contract. There must be guidelines for making sure the process is above-board and sanctions for those who award contracts that do not meet the guidelines.

The current Democratic Congress is comparatively well-regarded by the public for its performance. Democrats are certainly in no immediate danger of losing their majority or even losing many seats in 2010. But public opinion is fragile here, and it would not take much to ignite that populist outrage. Acting now is smart politics — and very good policy.

Ornstein is being too kind, of course. I find it stunning that anyone can compliment this Congress for its performance. What has it passed – apart from the porkulus? If your signature piece of legislation is something that most Americans see as worthless, it’s unclear to me how you frame your re-election campaign. I suppose you could turn to other Congressional accomplishments to brag about – tax increases, an enormous increase in the debt, bringing terrorists onto American soil, buying GM, and instituting government-run health care – but I don’t know that any of them is going to poll any better.

No, I think that Ornstein is starting to realize the dilemma Congressional Democrats face, but it may be 2010 before they see the buzzsaw.

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