Thursday, January 27, 2005

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

Recent stories about Rep. Tom DeLay and his arrogant re-working of the House Ethics rules have brought back memories of what got the House Democrats in trouble in 1994 that led to the “Gingrich Revolution.” Even Democrats are saying that what the Republicans are doing is the same thing that got them in trouble in the 1980’s and early 90’s. Nonsense, says Sam Rosenfeld in The American Prospect. The Republicans are much worse.

This is getting old. Republicans have long peddled the moral-equivalence line in order to rationalize their behavior in the majority as just deserts and to characterize all Democratic complaints as sour grapes. The mainstream acceptance of the notion that the Jim Wright-Tom Foley era was some cesspool of moral lassitude and institutional autocracy only serves to frame contemporary Republican practices as a natural progression in a political cycle, a version of politics as usual. It behooves Democrats seeking to revive their party’s fortunes through a reformist appeal to challenge this received wisdom — not the least because, in fact, it’s utter nonsense.

There are two components of the majority “arrogance” one hears about: autocratic rule and corruption. On both counts, the claim of moral equivalence between the later Democratic majorities and the modern GOP congress is unfounded.


Plenty of ethical lapses and pay-to-play lawmaking took place under the Democratic majorities. But Republicans, upon taking the reins in 1995, were immediately more corrupt. The relationship between lobbyists and legislators became instantly more incestuous. (And I do mean “instantly”: On January 3, 1995, two days before the Republicans were to take official control of Congress, Tom DeLay gathered a large group of industry lobbyists into his new office and inaugurated a deregulatory lobbying-lawmaking collaboration called Project Relief; it was the start of a very beautiful friendship.) The Republican leadership has raised the value limit on lobbying gifts by about tenfold while easing restrictions on free junkets. Lobbyists have a more direct involvement in the writing of legislation than they ever did under the Democrats. The willingness to eviscerate ethical safeguards and oversight emerged more gradually under Republican control, but, particularly as DeLay consolidated his power over the course of the late ’90s and into George W. Bush’s first term, emerge it did.

You’ve got to hand it to the Republicans – they make the Democratic lapses look like small potatoes.