June 7, 2006

June 7, 2006 | Commentary on

Bipartisan Coalition thwarts GOP majority

Earlier this year, moderate Republican Chris Shays of Connecticut speculated openly about how his role in Congress would change should the Democrats regain control of the House in November. "If I'm in the minority," he mused, "I'll be one of the most powerful members of Congress."

Indeed, Washington's pundits have begun fantasizing about what a left-leaning Congress controlled by uber-liberals such as Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi would mean, not just for Mr. Shays, but for all of us. But the dirty little secret is the liberal faction on Capitol Hill already outnumbers the conservative forces on many crucial issues, including immigration reform, energy independence, reasonable environmental regulation, health reform and federal spending. Late May offered two distinct and disturbing glimpses of what might become everyday reality should Democrats regain control.

In each case, conservative Republicans in both the House and Senate -- the "majority of the majority" as Speaker Denny Hastert (R.-Ill.) recently characterized them -- lost almost two dozen floor votes, consistently being outflanked by a bipartisan coalition consisting of almost all Democrats and a handful of mostly moderate Republicans. This is precisely the sort of coalition that would catapult Shays and other moderate Republicans into the political limelight.

At issue in the Senate was the controversial overhaul of immigration law. It began with Sen. Johnny Isakson's (R.-Ga.) effort to delay the bill's amnesty provisions and guest-worker program until the Secretary of Homeland Security certifies that the border is secure. It continued when Senators John Ensign (R.-Nev.) and Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) fell short in their efforts to bar illegal immigrants from accruing Social Security benefits or receiving the Earned Income Tax Credit until they become citizens. And it culminated when the liberal coalition rebuffed Sen. Jon Kyl's (R.-Ariz.) proposal to require guest workers to actually leave the country once their visas expire and Sen. Wayne Allard's (R.-Co.) point of order that the bill's long-term costs violated Senate budget rules. And so on

Fifteen times, the majority of Senate Republicans succumbed to an unshakable and bipartisan coalition consisting of 10 Republicans and 42 Democrats. Remarkably, liberal lions such as Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.), Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.), John Kerry (D.-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) prevailed on each and every vote as the conservative vision of immigration reform was unceremoniously swept into the dustbin of Senate history.

Coincidentally, the same dynamic took shape in the House, where the majority of House Republicans took it on the chin seven times on amendments to the spending bill for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. As in the Senate, a bipartisan coalition of up to 200 House Democrats joined with approximately three dozen Republicans to, among other things, maintain the moratorium on drilling for oil and natural gas on the Outer Continental Shelf, broaden the EPA's regulatory reach into entirely intrastate matters, and squelch a forthcoming EPA rule that annoyed environmental organizations.

For now, these episodes are aberrations. After all, the leadership and most committee chairmen in both the House and Senate are conservative and determine the policy and oversight agendas of congressional committees and the timing and content of each body's floor schedule. But it's important to keep in mind that principled conservatives are now decided minorities in both chambers. It is the thin blue line of conservative House and Senate leaders that separate us from the daily chaos that would ensue should liberals regain control of Congress.

Every journey begins with a single step. If so, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) deserves credit for moving his congressional colleagues one step closer to fiscal sanity. Garrett has spearheaded a campaign to cap the number of federal bureaucrats eligible to travel to international conferences. Thus far, Garrett's limit of 50-bureaucrats-per-conference applies to the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and the EPA. He intends to offer the same limit to spending bills covering most other most federal agencies. "While one more staffer here, and one more staffer there, doesn't sound like much," Garrett said, "it could mean one more shift a worker in my district has to work instead of being home with his family."

Working with the Senate's leading budget hawk, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Garrett would not only like to cap the number of bureaucrats attending these taxpayer-financed junkets, but also reduce agency travel budgets to their 2001 levels. Such an approach could save hundreds of millions annually.

Mike 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 Online