Back to the Malignant Politics of 1995

Prophets of the Politics of Nihilism
“There’s going to be a government shutdown just like in ’95 and ’96. But we’re going to win it this time and I’ll be fighting on your side.”

—Republican political consultant Dick Morris, April 2010

“Stage one of the end of Obamaism will be a new Republican Congress in January that simply refuses to fund any of the radical efforts.”

—Newt Gingrich, April 2010

It worked so well for them last time.

Threats of a government shutdown began as early as April, when political operative Dick Morris wrote that the Republicans who will win control of the House of Representatives in November will shut down the government — just as they did in 1995-1996, until then-Speaker Newt Gingrich backed away from his standoff with Bill Clinton.

“But we’re going to win it this time,” Morris said.

Morris was one of Clinton’s more egregious mistakes, a second-tier political consultant hired to help with the White House’s “triangulation” strategy and fired after it was reported that he had allowed a prostitute to listen in on a phone conversation with the president. The resilient Morris quickly found his way to the right wing of the Republican Party.

Gingrich made the same promise in an April speech at a conservative gabfest in New Orleans — that a Republican House will use the constitutional power of the purse to undo what Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress have done. “Under our Constitution, the Congress doesn’t have to pass the money,” Gingrich said.

By late August, certain that his party will be in the majority when the House convenes in January, Minority Whip Eric Cantor also predicted a shutdown. Cantor (R-VA) told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that House Republicans intend “to go forward on all fronts full throttle” on health care. “We’ve got to make sure initially that we are defunding every bit of the regulations process,” Cantor said.

It’s a safe bet that Republicans will win enough (most pollsters predict more than enough) seats in November to take control of the House. Sixty days out, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato predicted that they will pick up 47 seats; 39 will put them in the majority.

It’s an equally safe bet that the Republicans, in an organized campaign to damage Obama before the 2012 presidential election, will continue the politics of nihilism (that has served them so well them while in the minority), to which they will add appropriations brinkmanship.

A website (DeFundit.org) has 162 Republican, Libertarian and conservative endorsements. Only four who signed on are actually members of Congress, which might suggest that it’s still too early to tell if this is a revolt or a revolution.

DeFundit founder Alex Cortes told me that “so few members have signed on because my organization is fairly new and they are used to and comfortable working with more established organizations.” Cortes pointed to Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell, who signed on with DeFundit, then went on to defeat Rep. Mike Castle in the Republican Senate primary race in Delaware. Castle didn’t sign the Defundit pledge.

“The House leadership is very committed to defunding,” Cortes said, which is evident in the statement of Mike Pence (R-IN), the chair of the House Republican Conference.

“Congress holds the power of the purse,” Pence said. “And yes, I will support all efforts to cut off funding for ObamaCare.”

Speaker-in-Waiting John Boehner also is on record as supporting the defunding of Democratic legislation.

The plan is to pass appropriations bills that will “zero-fund” health care reform, and perhaps EPA measures to regulate greenhouse gases, as well as other measures to which the conservatives object. When the president vetoes the legislation, House Republicans will use an appropriations standoff to shut down the government.

REPUBLICAN CHAIRS—Consider three Republicans in line for critically important House committee chairmanships and you have some sense of what the Democrats’ winter of discontent will look like.

Washington (and the nation) will be a drastically different place if California Rep. Jerry Lewis takes the place of retiring Wisconsin Democrat Dave Obey as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Lewis had a short run as committee chair before the Democrats took control of the House in 2006. Prior to his appointment to the chairmanship of the big committee, he directed the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, where he moved large sums of federal money to military sites in his Southern California District. He also earned a reputation as a legislator who could work with Democrats — which impeded his career for a while.

Lewis was either asleep at the switch or part of the problem when his California colleague Randall Duke Cunningham pled guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes. Cunningham served on the defense subcommittee that Lewis chaired, where he used earmarks to direct federal dollars to contractors who kicked millions back to him.

Democratic staffers looked at the process and found that the annual defense appropriations bill passed while Lewis was chairman included almost as much earmarked money as all 12 appropriations bills passed by the other subcommittees.

Defense contractors still are generously supporting Lewis, writing checks amounting to $97,900 in 2009-2010. Lobbyists were a distant second, with $67,300, according to Opensecrets.org.

Lewis’s ascent to the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee in 2004 says a lot about his ability to adapt to a changing political climate. He was the chair of the House Republican Conference from 1989 to 1992, when he got crossways with the Gingrich revolutionaries for being too pragmatic and bipartisan and was removed from leadership. By the time he auditioned for the Appropriations Committee chair in 2004, he had found religion and was playing by a new rulebook written by Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Speaker Denny Hastert, which required allegiance to the House leadership and a proven record as a fundraiser.

Three contenders for the appropriations chair were vetted by the House Republican Steering Committee, which audited their books to determine how much money each had raised. Lewis’s political action committee had donated $277,000 to 50 Republican candidates, considerably less than his leading competitor, Ralph Regula. But Lewis had contributed the $5,000 individual maximum to then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s Legal Expense Trust, and provided DeLay another $85,000 he collected from the California delegation.

Lewis also had used his position as defense subcommittee chair to direct earmarked money to the members of the Steering Committee who selected the chairman. And he had proved his manhood to Mike Pence by attempting to slash EPA appropriations in 1995. Pence was then chairman of the Republican Steering Committee.

Once Lewis assumed the Appropriations chair in 2004, he earned his bones by firing Jim Dyer, the committee’s veteran clerk and staff director. Dyer was an institutionalist Republican whose bipartisan approach to the complex appropriations process had antagonized conservatives.

This is important to remember about Jerry Lewis. He was housebroken by the Republican leadership in 2004. If he gets his old job back, he will be taking orders from Majority Leader John Boehner and Republican Conference Chair Mike Pence.

POLITICAL SCIENCE—The change in leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will be equally as radical if Texas Republican Joe Barton replaces California veteran Henry Waxman. Barton, an engineer from a Dallas suburb, has taken $1.67 million from oil and gas interests since 1990, more than any other member of Congress, according to OpenSecrets.

A Barton chairmanship is easy to predict because he held the position before the Republicans lost the House in 2006.

Barton is a climate-change denier. As Energy and Commerce chair in 2006, Barton seized on the “Climategate” e-mails leaked by a hacker who broke into the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit computers. He commissioned a George Mason University statistician with no experience in climate science to conduct a critical study of the work of American climate scientist Michael Mann, in a failed attempt to find flaws with the process Mann used to track global warming.

A study by Pennsylvania State University (where Mann now teaches) and an exhaustive inquiry in the U.K. disproved the charges raised by the Climategate proponents. And scientific evidence has mounted since 2006 that the earth is being dangerously heated by human activity. Yet there is no reason to believe that Barton has changed his position on global warming. So expect no climate-related legislation — whether cap and trade or a more straightforward carbon tax — for at least two years, as the United States continues as the largest obstacle to an international effort to check global warming.

Beyond climate change, examples of where Barton will take the committee are abundant. One legislative fight that Barton led (and lost) as committee chair in 2006 was his attempt to provide legal immunity for producers of a gasoline additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE is a carcinogen that had contaminated the water supplies of at least 1,800 municipalities. Barton backed down in increments: from his initial provision that would have provided complete legal immunity for producers, to a compromise that would have had producers paying for one-third of an $11.4 billion cleanup fund, and finally to stripping his pro-industry provision from the bill because it ensured failure when President George W. Bush insisted the legislation pass.

For the two years to come, unless the political climate changes drastically before November 2, the chairmanship now held by Henry Waxman will be endowed by the American Petroleum Institute.

INSPECTOR ISSA—Darrell Issa has already taken out one elected chief executive, even if he misjudged how the plot he put in motion will play out. In 2003 he used some of the millions he had made in the car-alarm business to fund the campaign that recalled California Governor Gray Davis. Issa assumed that leading the effort to recall the hapless Davis would be the perfect prelude to running for governor. It was — for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Lately, seated center-stage-left on the top tier of the dais at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearings, ranking Republican Issa is all kinetic energy — coiled and ready to make something happen. Give him subpoena power and it will. That’s not exactly a state secret. Issa is on record that if he’s elevated to the chairmanship of the committee, he will add staff, issue subpoenas, and begin investigations — most aimed at the Obama administration. His communications director told Politico that he calls his boss “the questioner in chief.”

Where does Issa begin if the Republicans win control of the House in November?

I predict it will be with the Obama administration’s failed attempt to keep Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff from running in Democratic primaries. (Romanoff lost to appointed incumbent Michael Bennett in Colorado; in Pennsylvania, Sestak ended the 30-year Senate career of Arlen Specter.) Issa and other Republicans insist that someone in the Obama administration broke the law when they offered Romanoff and Sestak positions in the administration in an attempt to keep them from challenging sitting Democratic senators. White House lawyer Bob Bauer says no law was broken, and the administration’s attempt to avoid bitter primary fights indeed looks like (ham-handed) politics as usual.

Issa has demanded a Justice Department investigation. As committee chair, he will conduct his own, subpoenaing documents and witnesses to target the White House — and perhaps the Justice Department, to determine why it failed to investigate. Even if no law was broken, the process will create months of bad publicity for the Obama administration.

Issa’s work in the minority has suggested other subjects he will pursue. In a press release issued by the minority members on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee regarding the federal bailout of General Motors, Issa complained about “politically-orchestrated bailouts … putting private enterprise into the hands of political appointees.”

He will continue his campaign against the GM bailout and go after the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), even though the $700 billion bank bailout began in the administration of George W. Bush.

You can also expect a flood of subpoenas aimed at the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — also known as the stimulus program. The stimulus bill that Obama and retiring Appropriations Committee Chair Dave Obey pushed through Congress in early 2009 is a favorite target of Republicans. Issa has already called for an investigation of a White House website that allows users to track stimulus money to projects funded. And he’s gone after the Department of Transportation for posting signs that identify projects funded by the stimulus legislation.

Issa has ranged beyond the White House, demanding that election tabulation information from Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken’s 2008 defeat of Republican Senator Norm Coleman be preserved for a possible investigation. Issa claims that the most thoroughly litigated election in the history of the Senate might have been stolen by Democrats who allowed unqualified voters to cast ballots, resulting in Franken’s 312-vote victory. (Before joining the White House staff, Bob Bauer argued Al Franken’s election case before the Minnesota Supreme Court, so Issa might have two runs at Bauer.)

Issa has done some good work as ranking committee member. Without the subpoena power he would have as chairman, he has investigated Countrywide Financial Corporation and bailout beneficiary A.I.G.— forcing both to turn over information that serves the public interest. And he is politically astute enough to avoid the excesses of former Republican committee chairman Dan Burton, who went so far as to investigate the pet cat in the Clinton White House. (On MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow ShowThe Nation‘s Chris Hayes recalled how far around the bend Burton had gone when he shot a watermelon in his back yard in a bizarre attempt to prove that Clinton White House advisor Vince Foster’s death couldn’t have been a suicide.)

If Issa is no Dan Burton, he can be equally ruthless (without being idiotic). In July, Issa tried to force Google to provide him with administration e-mails he was not able to obtain from the White House — a maneuver that would have been criticized if Beijing had attempted it.

So Darrell Issa is not to be underestimated. Should the Democrats lose control of the House in November, the Obama administration might consider hiring some of the House committee staff attorneys who lose their jobs. The president is going to need all the legal help he can get.