November 16, 2004

November 16, 2004 | Commentary on Political Thought

Legislative Lowdown - Week of November 15

Storm over Specter. Shortly after Election Day, Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.), in line to succeed Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.) as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, embraced a pro-abortion litmus test for President Bush's Supreme Court nominees. Specter said: "When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely."

Specter's comments ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill, as pro-family groups reconfigured themselves into campaign mode and organized a massive onslaught of e-mails and phone calls to Senate offices. Senators report receiving a heavier volume of constituent contacts--almost all of them anti-Specter--than they received when the Senate was considering a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Senate hallways were abuzz with speculation that Specter's comments would prompt conservative senators to mount an effort to deny him the chairmanship he has coveted for so many years, and just when one or more Supreme Court vacancies appear imminent.

Some senior Senate staff have noted an irony in Specter's situation: The maverick Pennsylvania Republican will become chairman so long as his colleagues adhere to the longstanding Senate tradition of allotting committee chairmanships solely on the basis of seniority. Yet by establishing an ideological litmus test for judicial nominees, Specter would himself be breaking with the longstanding Senate tradition--increasingly under assault by Senate Democrats in recent years--of evaluating nominees on the basis of their overall professional qualifications and judicial temperament, and not on narrow ideological grounds.

With Congress reconvening this week, senators will find themselves in the midst of an unexpected battle over who controls the gavel on the Senate committee that will occupy ground zero of any confrontation over a Supreme Court nomination. Technically, Senate committee assignments and the designation of committee chairman will not take place until early January. But insiders expect the Specter imbroglio to resolve itself before Thanksgiving. The overwhelming and immediate reaction of the pro-family groups and their members to Specter's comments, moreover, reinforces the general sense among Hill insiders that no legislative challenge facing President Bush as he begins his second term--not Social Security reform, nor the overhaul of our tax code, nor even future confrontations over the application of Bush's strategy to defeat terrorism--will rival the emotional intensity and the significance of battles affecting our highest court.

Small-Government Democrats? Democratic strategist and CNN commentator James Carville reportedly has read the election tea leaves and concluded that the Democratic Party needs to be "born again." According to a report in the Washington Times, Carville may recommend that Democrats embrace a "reform-oriented, anti-Washington" agenda built around "the ability of members of Congress to reject pork projects for their districts and stake the party's fortunes on fiscal discipline." Indeed, Carville's timing may be fortuitous. A pre-election poll by the Winston Group found that, by a margin of 47% to 44%, Americans now view the Democratic Party as the party best able to "handle the issue of fiscal responsibility."

Should the Democratic Party move in this direction, it would enjoy a bountiful supply of targets, many of them served up by members of the Grand Old Party. After examining just two of the nine appropriations bills awaiting final congressional approval, National Journal concluded that appropriators who are stepping down due to term limits, such as Alaska Republican Ted Stevens in the Senate and Florida Republican Bill Young in the House, or retiring, such as South Carolina Democrat Ernest Hollings, "did remarkably well for their constituents before leaving their posts."

Stevens directed an astounding $178.8 million to his home state of Alaska in the bills providing funds to the Departments of State, Commerce, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development, including $15 million for the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, $350,000 for the Arctic Winter Games and $950,000 for an Olympic-quality speed skating rink. Outgoing House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young included $1.8 million for two art museums in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hollings, no piker in this competition, included $166 million for South Carolina interests, including funds for an undergraduate scholarship program and a marine laboratory (both of which will bear his name), $2 million for something called the South Carolina Seafood Alliance, and nearly $30 million to modernize South Carolina's judicial case docket system.

Carville's new direction for the Democratic Party will win more widespread acceptance among the party's rank and file on Capitol Hill if Ohio Republican Ralph Regula ascends to the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. Regula has told his House Republican colleagues that, as chairman, he would end the practice of divvying up a portion of the 13 annual appropriations bills between the Republicans and Democrats on each panel according to a prearranged formula. Instead, Democrats would be beholden to the senior Republican on each subcommittee for specific projects in their districts. With Democrats unlikely to reap as many pork projects under this new regime, Carville's proposal could be the political equivalent of turning lemons into lemonade for a Democratic Party desperately in search of a post-election policy agenda.

Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Political Thought

First appeared in Human Events