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Jewish World Review July 2, 2003 / 2 Tamuz, 5763

Quin Hillyer

Quin Hillyer
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Consumer Reports

House GOP ignores its own prescriptions for reform | The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has, once and for all, revealed itself to be full of hypocritical political pit bosses perfectly willing to abuse their power.

And to think that these guys came into the majority in January 1995 with the claim to be reformers.

The latest and most obscene occasion of the GOP leadership's abandonment of political fair play came in the wee hours of last Friday morning, when the House was voting on whether to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare. The vote was extremely close. And the leadership flat-out cheated.

For background, it's necessary to recall the complaints of Republicans when they suffered as a House minority for 40 years. One of their fiercest complaints was that Democrats consistently rigged the rules and, when even that didn't suffice, they pretended as if the rules didn't even exist. On the latter front, one of the worst abuses was the Democrats' practice of refusing to enforce the time limits on important House votes.

Republicans would struggle to overcome all the obstacles Democrats put in their way, line up enough votes on an important issue, and then watch, dumbfounded, as the Democratic leadership would "hold open" the voting ma chines. The allotted time limit would run out, but the Democrat leadership would pull recalcitrant members aside and browbeat them or tempt them with Lord-knows-what threats and promises until they switched their votes.

As soon as the leadership's position held a bare one-vote edge, the voting machines would be closed.

I remember it well. I was a Republican press secretary on Capitol Hill. I remember when the GOP won its majority in 1994, and I was proud of all the reformist rules changes we implemented to stop such shenanigans. One of the loudest and most explicit pledges made then by the new majority was that we would enforce the time limit for voting, with no more than an extra two-minute leeway to allow for legitimate unforeseen difficulties such as members being held away from the floor by slow elevators and such.

Fast forward to the dark-of-night maneuverings on Friday morning, while the nation slept. With a hard-fought leadership package on prescription drugs drawing fire from both right and left, the allotted 15 minutes ran out with the "no" votes holding the upper hand.

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Let's quote Laura Meckler of The Associated Press as to what happened next: "It took House leaders nearly an hour of up-close cajoling after the vote began to get over the top. Hundreds of lawmakers looked on as GOP leaders hovered over Reps. C.L. Otter of Idaho and Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri until they switched their votes. House Speaker Den nis Hastert said he won them over with a promise for a future vote on a bill allowing the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada, but he wouldn't provide details."

Sounds exactly like the bad old Democratic days to me. The question is, how is what Speaker Hastert did any different from what Republicans had conniption fits about in 2000, when a judge in St. Louis held the polls open for hours after the scheduled end of voting, in heavily Democratic precincts, to help Democrat Bob Holden defeat Republican Jim Talent for the Missouri governorship?

How is it different from the similar shenanigans on Democrat-heavy Native American reservations in South Dakota in 2002?

The GOP, quite legitimately, complains when the rules are bent for partisan advantage. So why is it OK for Republicans to do it when it suits their own interests?

One by one, Republicans have jettisoned standards of fair play and ethics as they become more and more convinced that their congressional majority is safe. A few years ago, GOP Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa aptly described such attitudes as the "arrogance of power."

For example, the House leadership earlier this year abandoned restrictions on "gifts" from lobbyists to congressmen and their staffs. The "gift rule," like the voting time-limit pledge -- and like an internal rule on the Appropriations Committee against "earmarking" purely local projects -- had been implemented with admirable reformist enthusiasm back in 1995.

(In April, reformists on the Ethics Committee struck back and found a new way to limit such gifts. But the leadership never should have killed the restrictions in the first place.)

None of this is to exonerate the putrid ethical sense of many congressional Democrats as well, especially in the Senate. Most Senate Democrats have thrown all tradition, and quite possibly the Constitution, on its head through abusive, unprecedented use of permanent filibusters against judicial nominees -- and for reasons so trumped up as to have offended even the Democrat-leaning editorialists at The Washington Post.

But the cure for unethical political hardball isn't more of the same by the other side. The cure is to force everyone to behave ethically. That means setting strict rules of procedure and accountability, and then following those rules -- even if it means you lose.

On Friday, House Republican leaders miserably failed those standards. By all reasonable rules of fair procedure, they lost the vote on prescription drugs. By crass political chicanery, they stole a victory from that defeat.

And the honor of representative democracy was again grievously besmirched.

JWR contributor Quin Hillyer is an editorial writer for the Mobile Register. Comment by clicking here.


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