Saturday, November 27, 2004

Choke Hold

House Speaker Dennis Hastert used to be a wrestling coach. That bit of history trivia is apparent in his recent moves to consolidate power for the Republicans and marginalize the Democrats.

In scuttling major intelligence legislation that he, the president and most lawmakers supported, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert last week enunciated a policy in which Congress will pass bills only if most House Republicans back them, regardless of how many Democrats favor them.

Hastert’s position, which is drawing fire from Democrats and some outside groups, is the latest step in a decade-long process of limiting Democrats’ influence and running the House virtually as a one-party institution. Republicans earlier barred House Democrats from helping to draft major bills such as the 2003 Medicare revision and this year’s intelligence package. Hastert (R-Ill.) now says such bills will reach the House floor, after negotiations with the Senate, only if “the majority of the majority” supports them.

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Some congressional scholars say Hastert is emphasizing one element of his job to the detriment of another. As speaker, said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, “you are the party leader, but you are ratified by the whole House. You are a constitutional officer,” in line for the presidency after the vice president. At crucial times, he said, a speaker must put the House ahead of his party.

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In the new Congress that convenes in January, Hastert’s strategy may prove sufficient for GOP victories on issues that sharply divide the two parties, such as tax cuts, several analysts said. But on trade issues and other matters that are more divisive within the parties — and thus require bipartisan coalitions to pass — he could face serious problems.

Hastert’s “majority of the majority” maxim, Ornstein said, “is a disastrous recipe for tackling domestic issues such as entitlement programs, the deficit and things like that.”

Way back when the Democrats ran the place, the Republicans complained that the Democrats were ignoring the wishes of the minority, and they ran against them with the idea that they could do a better job. Well, it seems that they meant they could do a better job of ignoring the wishes of the minority.