December 7, 2004

December 7, 2004 | Commentary on Political Thought

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of December 6

The media--and much of the Washington establishment--are aghast at the way President Bush and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have handled the transition to a second Bush term.

The New York Times has described the President's decision to nominate loyalists for various cabinet posts as "worrisome" and describes Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzales and Margaret Spellings (intended for the departments of State, Justice and Education, respectively) as "yes men and women." According to old Republican hand David Gergen, these appointments show that Bush is "closing down dissent."

Note the theme in this criticism: The party in power somehow is obliged to cede significant portions of its power to opposition elements in the permanent federal bureaucracy and to the minority party on Capitol Hill. Republican leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue bristle at this notion and have rejected it categorically.

Implicit in virtually every major decision Republican leaders have made since the election is the notion that the effective use of power requires a clear vision, a firm hand at the till and a willingness to encounter harsh criticism from liberal opinion leaders. Three recent examples illustrate this point:

1. The President appointed the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Florida Republican Porter Goss, to revamp the Central Intelligence Agency, and heads immediately began to roll in that discredited agency. Huffed Washington Post columnist David Ignatius: "It's crazy for a nation at war to be purging its spies."

2. Similarly, Speaker Dennis Hastert pulled the intelligence-reform legislation from the House calendar on November 20 after two powerful Republican committee chairmen and many of their House Republican colleagues raised strenuous objections to the bill. This elicited anguished cries in The Washington Post and elsewhere that Hastert has ushered in an era of "intra-party absolutism" in which Republicans would listen only to the conservative "majority of the majority" among House Republicans and ignore the views of Democrats.

3. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's mere contemplation of a Senate rules change to deny obstructionist Senate Democrats the powerful tool of the filibuster to derail judicial nominations, described in ample detail in this space last week, has prompted liberal pundits to claim that power-crazed Senate Republicans are conspiring to trample on centuries of sacred Senate tradition to radically reshape the federal judiciary.

What holds these episodes together? In each instance, Washington's liberal power elite fears that the power structure in Washington has finally, a quarter century after Ronald Reagan's arrival in Washington, tilted toward conservatives and their ambitious, wide-ranging policy objectives. These shifts, moreover, coincide with mounting liberal angst that November's election results offer no discernible road map for their return to power.

Thus, early signs that President Bush intends to advance a robust conservative policy agenda in his second term and appoint Bush loyalists to reconstitute key federal agencies with ideologically sympathetic appointees--combined with evidence that Republican congressional leaders will leave no stone unturned to bring this agenda to fruition--confront Democrats and liberals with the harrowing revelation that conservatives may have reached the "tipping point" and achieved long-term ascendancy in Washington.

Oil for Food Update: Virginia Republican Frank Wolf, a House veteran of 24 years who oversees the appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for the annual $360-million U.S. contribution to the United Nations' regular operating budget, believes the UN "is becoming paralyzed." Whether the challenge is a famine in Rwanda, the genocidal civil war in the Sudan or the emerging multi-billion dollar financial scandal associated with the Oil for Food program, Wolf sees a cumbersome organization that is unable to respond to crises.

To address these shortcomings, Wolf inserted $1.5 million in the omnibus spending bill to create a Task Force on the United Nations, to be comprised of a dozen experts. Six leading think tanks--The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Hoover Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies--each gets to appoint two experts.

Of course, this brigade of think tankers and other experts will inspire little fear in the hearts of the French and other UN apologists. But the fact that Wolf has reached this breaking point with respect to the UN is indicative of a much wider and growing animosity within Congress toward the fabled bureaucracy on New York City's East River. And let's not forget that the annual U.S. contribution to the UN's regular operating budget--which, at 22%, is greater than the combined contributions of France, Germany, Russia, Canada and China--reflects a collective judgment on the part of our elected representatives that the UN is a credible institution, worthy of taxpayer largesse.

With that credibility now in question and with new chairmen poised to assume control of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, the stars may have aligned in favor of the approach championed by Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona: Withhold a portion of the U.S. contribution pending the satisfactory resolution of this burgeoning oil for food scandal. Faced with the prospect of losing so many millions of dollars, UN officials will likely make that resolution a quick one.

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

First appeared in Human Events