Rolling Stone: Inside the Worst Congress Ever
- "American government was not designed for one-party rule but for rule by
consensus - so this current batch of Republicans has found a way to work
around that product design. They have scuttled both the spirit and the
letter of congressional procedure, turning the lawmaking process into a
backroom deal, with power concentrated in the hands of a few chiefs behind
the scenes. This reduces the legislature to a Belarus-style rubber stamp,
where the opposition is just there for show, human pieces of stagecraft - a
fact the Republicans don't even bother to conceal."
Hi. Amy Goodman interviewed Matt Taibbi yesterday on Democrocy Now
and it was a stunner. I had no idea things were near as bad and I'll bet
almost none of you did, his piece being almost akin to Upton Sinclair on
meatpacking, in The Jungle, even Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate.
It's long but incredibly worth reading, in sections, if need be. It's value
goes far beyond this election, but that becomes crucial, if not sufficient
for changes so desperately cried for by the situation described. Pass it
on and keep it in mind after the election to yell about to congress and
organize around. This piece might just spark a wildfire.
Time to Go! Inside the Worst Congress Ever
By Matt Taibbi
Tuesday 17 October 2006
The worst Congress ever: How our national legislature has become a stable
of thieves and perverts - in five easy steps.
There is very little that sums up the record of the US Congress in the
Bush years better than a half-mad boy-addict put in charge of a federal
commission on child exploitation. After all, if a hairy-necked,
raincoat-clad freak like Rep. Mark Foley can get himself named co-chairman
of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, one can only wonder:
What the hell else is going on in the corridors of Capitol Hill these days?
These past six years were more than just the most shameful, corrupt and
incompetent period in the history of the American legislative branch. These
were the years when the US parliament became a historical punch line, a
political obscenity on par with the court of Nero or Caligula - a stable of
thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning
and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a
debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable.
To be sure, Congress has always been a kind of muddy ideological
cemetery, a place where good ideas go to die in a maelstrom of bureaucratic
hedging and rank favor-trading. Its whole history is one long love letter to
sleaze, idiocy and pigheaded, glacial conservatism. That Congress exists
mainly to misspend our money and snore its way through even the direst
political crises is something we Americans understand instinctively. "There
is no native criminal class except Congress," Mark Twain said - a joke that
still provokes a laugh of recognition a hundred years later.
But the 109th Congress is no mild departure from the norm, no slight
deviation in an already-underwhelming history. No, this is nothing less than
a historic shift in how our democracy is run. The Republicans who control
this Congress are revolutionaries, and they have brought their revolutionary
vision for the House and Senate quite unpleasantly to fruition. In the past
six years they have castrated the political minority, abdicated their
oversight responsibilities mandated by the Constitution, enacted a conscious
policy of massive borrowing and unrestrained spending, and installed a host
of semipermanent mechanisms for transferring legislative power to commercial
interests. They aimed far lower than any other Congress has ever aimed, and
they nailed their target.
"The 109th Congress is so bad that it makes you wonder if democracy is a
failed experiment," says Jonathan Turley, a noted constitutional scholar and
the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington Law
School. "I think that if the Framers went to Capitol Hill today, it would
shake their confidence in the system they created. Congress has become an
exercise of raw power with no principles - and in that environment
corruption has flourished. The Republicans in Congress decided from the
outset that their future would be inextricably tied to George Bush and his
policies. It has become this sad session of members sitting down and
drinking Kool-Aid delivered by Karl Rove. Congress became a mere extension
of the White House."
The end result is a Congress that has hijacked the national treasury,
frantically ceded power to the executive, and sold off the federal
government in a private auction. It all happened before our very eyes. In
case you missed it, here's how they did it - in five easy steps:
Step One: Rule by Cabal
If you want to get a sense of how Congress has changed under GOP
control, just cruise the basement hallways of storied congressional office
buildings like Rayburn, Longworth and Cannon. Here, in the minority offices
for the various congressional committees, you will inevitably find exactly
the same character - a Democratic staffer in rumpled khakis staring blankly
off into space, nothing but a single lonely "Landscapes of Monticello"
calendar on his wall, his eyes wide and full of astonished, impotent rage,
like a rape victim. His skin is as white as the belly of a fish; he hasn't
seen the sun in seven years.
It is no big scoop that the majority party in Congress has always found
ways of giving the shaft to the minority. But there is a marked difference
in the size and the length of the shaft the Republicans have given the
Democrats in the past six years. There has been a systematic effort not only
to deny the Democrats any kind of power-sharing role in creating or refining
legislation but to humiliate them publicly, show them up, pee in their
faces. Washington was once a chummy fraternity in which members of both
parties golfed together, played in the same pickup basketball games,
probably even shared the same mistresses. Now it is a one-party town - and
congressional business is conducted accordingly, as though the half of the
country that the Democrats represent simply does not exist.
American government was not designed for one-party rule but for rule by
consensus - so this current batch of Republicans has found a way to work
around that product design. They have scuttled both the spirit and the
letter of congressional procedure, turning the lawmaking process into a
backroom deal, with power concentrated in the hands of a few chiefs behind
the scenes. This reduces the legislature to a Belarus-style rubber stamp,
where the opposition is just there for show, human pieces of stagecraft - a
fact the Republicans don't even bother to conceal.
"I remember one incident very clearly - I think it was 2001," says
Winslow Wheeler, who served for twenty-two years as a Republican staffer in
the Senate. "I was working for [New Mexico Republican] Pete Domenici at the
time. We were in a Budget Committee hearing and the Democrats were debating
what the final result would be. And my boss gets up and he says, 'Why are
you saying this? You're not even going to be in the room when the decisions
are made.' Just said it right out in the open."
Wheeler's very career is a symbol of a bipartisan age long passed into
the history books; he is the last staffer to have served in the offices of a
Republican and a Democrat at the same time, having once worked for both
Kansas Republican Nancy Kassebaum and Arkansas Democrat David Pryor
simultaneously. Today, those Democratic staffers trapped in the basement
laugh at the idea that such a thing could ever happen again. These days,
they consider themselves lucky if they manage to hold a single hearing on a
bill before Rove's well-oiled legislative machine delivers it up for Bush's
The GOP's "take that, bitch" approach to governing has been taken to the
greatest heights by the House Judiciary Committee. The committee is chaired
by the legendary Republican monster James Sensenbrenner Jr., an
ever-sweating, fat-fingered beast who wields his gavel in a way that makes
you think he might have used one before in some other arena, perhaps to beat
prostitutes to death. Last year, Sensenbrenner became apoplectic when
Democrats who wanted to hold a hearing on the Patriot Act invoked a
little-known rule that required him to let them have one.
"Naturally, he scheduled it for something like 9 a.m. on a Friday when
Congress wasn't in session, hoping that no one would show," recalls a
Democratic staffer who attended the hearing. "But we got a pretty good
Sensenbrenner kept trying to gavel the hearing to a close, but Democrats
again pointed to the rules, which said they had a certain amount of time to
examine their witnesses. When they refused to stop the proceedings, the
chairman did something unprecedented: He simply picked up his gavel and
"He was like a kid at the playground," the staffer says. And just in
case anyone missed the point, Sensenbrenner shut off the lights and cut the
microphones on his way out of the room.
For similarly petulant moves by a committee chair, one need look no
further than the Ways and Means Committee, where Rep. Bill Thomas - a
pugnacious Californian with an enviable ego who was caught having an affair
with a pharmaceutical lobbyist - enjoys a reputation rivaling that of the
rotund Sensenbrenner. The lowlight of his reign took place just before
midnight on July 17th, 2003, when Thomas dumped a "substitute" pension bill
on Democrats - one that they had never read - and informed them they would
be voting on it the next morning. Infuriated, Democrats stalled by demanding
that the bill be read out line by line while they recessed to a side room to
confer. But Thomas wanted to move forward - so he called the Capitol police
to evict the Democrats.
Thomas is also notorious for excluding Democrats from the conference
hearings needed to iron out the differences between House and Senate
versions of a bill. According to the rules, conferences have to include at
least one public, open meeting. But in the Bush years, Republicans have
managed the conference issue with some of the most mind-blowingly juvenile
behavior seen in any parliament west of the Russian Duma after happy hour.
GOP chairmen routinely call a meeting, bring the press in for a photo op and
then promptly shut the proceedings down. "Take a picture, wait five minutes,
gavel it out - all for show" is how one Democratic staffer described the
process. Then, amazingly, the Republicans sneak off to hold the real
conference, forcing the Democrats to turn amateur detective and go searching
the Capitol grounds for the meeting. "More often than not, we're trying to
figure out where the conference is," says one House aide.
In one legendary incident, Rep. Charles Rangel went searching for a
secret conference being held by Thomas. When he found the room where
Republicans closeted themselves, he knocked and knocked on the door, but no
one answered. A House aide compares the scene to the famous "Land Shark"
skit from Saturday Night Live, with everyone hiding behind the door afraid
to make a sound. "Rangel was the land shark, I guess," the aide jokes. But
the real punch line came when Thomas finally opened the door. "This
meeting," he informed Rangel, "is only open to the coalition of the
Republican rudeness and bluster make for funny stories, but the
phenomenon has serious consequences. The collegial atmosphere that once
prevailed helped Congress form a sense of collective identity that it needed
to fulfill its constitutional role as a check on the power of the other two
branches of government. It also enabled Congress to pass legislation with a
wide mandate, legislation that had been negotiated between the leaders of
both parties. For this reason Republican and Democratic leaders
traditionally maintained cordial relationships with each other - the model
being the collegiality between House Speaker Nicholas Longworth and Minority
Leader John Nance Garner in the 1920s. The two used to hold daily meetings
over drinks and even rode to work together.
Although cooperation between the two parties has ebbed and flowed over
the years, historians note that Congress has taken strong bipartisan action
in virtually every administration. It was Sen. Harry Truman who instigated
investigations of wartime profiteering under FDR, and Republicans Howard
Baker and Lowell Weicker Jr. played pivotal roles on the Senate Watergate
Committee that nearly led to Nixon's impeachment.
But those days are gone. "We haven't seen any congressional
investigations like this during the last six years," says David Mayhew, a
professor of political science at Yale who has studied Congress for four
decades. "These days, Congress doesn't seem to be capable of doing this sort
of thing. Too much nasty partisanship."
One of the most depressing examples of one-party rule is the Patriot
Act. The measure was originally crafted in classic bipartisan fashion in the
Judiciary Committee, where it passed by a vote of thirty-six to zero, with
famed liberals like Barney Frank and Jerrold Nadler saying aye. But when the
bill was sent to the Rules Committee, the Republicans simply chucked the
approved bill and replaced it with a new, far more repressive version,
apparently written at the direction of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"They just rewrote the whole bill," says Rep. James McGovern, a minority
member of the Rules Committee. "All that committee work was just for show."
To ensure that Democrats can't alter any of the last-minute changes,
Republicans have overseen a monstrous increase in the number of "closed"
rules - bills that go to the floor for a vote without any possibility of
amendment. This tactic undercuts the very essence of democracy: In a
bicameral system, allowing bills to be debated openly is the only way that
the minority can have a real impact, by offering amendments to legislation
drafted by the majority.
In 1977, when Democrats held a majority in the House, eighty-five
percent of all bills were open to amendment. But by 1994, the last year
Democrats ran the House, that number had dropped to thirty percent - and
Republicans were seriously pissed. "You know what the closed rule means,"
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida thundered on the House floor. "It means
no discussion, no amendments. That is profoundly undemocratic." When
Republicans took control of the House, they vowed to throw off the gag rules
imposed by Democrats. On opening day of the 104th Congress, then-Rules
Committee chairman Gerald Solomon announced his intention to institute free
debate on the floor. "Instead of having seventy percent closed rules," he
declared, "we are going to have seventy percent open and unrestricted
How has Solomon fared? Of the 111 rules introduced in the first session
of this Congress, only twelve were open. Of those, eleven were
appropriations bills, which are traditionally open. That left just one open
vote - H. Res. 255, the Federal Deposit Insurance Reform Act of 2005.
In the second session of this Congress? Not a single open rule, outside
of appropriation votes. Under the Republicans, amendable bills have been a
genuine Washington rarity, the upside-down eight-leafed clover of
When bills do make it to the floor for a vote, the debate generally
resembles what one House aide calls "preordained Kabuki." Republican leaders
in the Bush era have mastered a new congressional innovation: the one-vote
victory. Rather than seeking broad consensus, the leadership cooks up some
hideously expensive, favor-laden boondoggle and then scales it back bit by
bit. Once they're in striking range, they send the fucker to the floor and
beat in the brains of the fence-sitters with threats and favors until enough
members cave in and pass the damn thing. It is, in essence, a legislative
microcosm of the electoral strategy that Karl Rove has employed to such
A classic example was the vote for the Central American Free Trade
Agreement, the union-smashing, free-trade monstrosity passed in 2005. As has
often been the case in the past six years, the vote was held late at night,
away from the prying eyes of the public, who might be horrified by what they
see. Thanks to such tactics, the 109th is known as the "Dracula" Congress:
Twenty bills have been brought to a vote between midnight and 7 a.m.
CAFTA actually went to vote early - at 11:02 p.m. When the usual
fifteen-minute voting period expired, the nays were up, 180 to 175.
Republicans then held the vote open for another forty-seven minutes while
GOP leaders cruised the aisles like the family elders from The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre, frantically chopping at the legs and arms of Republicans
who opposed the measure. They even roused the president out of bed to help
kick ass for the vote, passing a cell phone with Bush on the line around the
House cloakroom like a bong. Rep. Robin Hayes of North Carolina was
approached by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who told him, "Negotiations are
open. Put on the table the things that your district and people need and
we'll get them." After receiving assurances that the administration would
help textile manufacturers in his home state by restricting the flow of
cheap Chinese imports, Hayes switched his vote to yea. CAFTA ultimately
passed by two votes at 12:03 a.m.
Closed rules, shipwrecked bills, secret negotiations, one-vote
victories. The result of all this is a Congress where there is little or no
open debate and virtually no votes are left to chance; all the important
decisions are made in backroom deals, and what you see on C-Span is just
empty theater, the world's most expensive trained-dolphin act. The constant
here is a political strategy of conducting congressional business with as
little outside input as possible, rejecting the essentially conservative
tradition of rule-by-consensus in favor of a more revolutionary strategy of
rule by cabal.
"This Congress has thrown caution to the wind," says Turley, the
constitutional scholar. "They have developed rules that are an abuse of
majority power. Keeping votes open by freezing the clock, barring minority
senators from negotiations on important conference issues - it is a record
that the Republicans should now dread. One of the concerns that Republicans
have about losing Congress is that they will have to live under the
practices and rules they have created. The abuses that served them in the
majority could come back to haunt them in the minority."
Step Two: Work as Little as Possible - And Screw Up Whatever You Do
It's Thursday evening, September 28th, and the Senate is putting the
finishing touches on the Military Commissions Act of 2006, colloquially
known as the "torture bill." It's a law even Stalin would admire, one that
throws habeas corpus in the trash, legalizes a vast array of savage
interrogation techniques and generally turns the president of the United
States into a kind of turbocharged Yoruba witch doctor, with nearly
unlimited snatching powers. The bill is a fall-from-Eden moment in American
history, a potentially disastrous step toward authoritarianism - but what is
most disturbing about it, beyond the fact that it's happening, is that the
senators are hurrying to get it done.
In addition to ending generations of bipartisanship and instituting
one-party rule, our national legislators in the Bush years are guilty of
something even more fundamental: They suck at their jobs.
They don't work many days, don't pass many laws, and the few laws
they're forced to pass, they pass late. In fact, in every year that Bush has
been president, Congress has failed to pass more than three of the eleven
annual appropriations bills on time.
That figures into tonight's problems. At this very moment, as the
torture bill goes to a vote, there are only a few days left until the
beginning of the fiscal year - and not one appropriations bill has been
passed so far. That's why these assholes are hurrying to bag this torture
bill: They want to finish in time to squeeze in a measly two hours of debate
tonight on the half-trillion-dollar defense-appropriations bill they've
blown off until now. The plan is to then wrap things up tomorrow before
splitting Washington for a month of real work, i.e., campaigning.
Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont comments on this rush to torture during the
final, frenzied debate. "Over 200 years of jurisprudence in this country,"
Leahy pleads, "and following an hour of debate, we get rid of it?"
Yawns, chatter, a few sets of rolling eyes - yeah, whatever, Pat. An
hour later, the torture bill is law. Two hours after that, the diminutive
chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Ted Stevens, reads
off the summary of the military-spending bill to a mostly empty hall; since
the members all need their sleep and most have left early, the "debate" on
the biggest spending bill of the year is conducted before a largely phantom
"Mr. President," Stevens begins, eyeing the few members present. "There
are only four days left in the fiscal year. The 2007 defense appropriations
conference report must be signed into law by the president before Saturday
Watching Ted Stevens spend half a trillion dollars is like watching a
junkie pull a belt around his biceps with his teeth. You get the sense he
could do it just as fast in the dark. When he finishes his summary - $436
billion in defense spending, including $70 billion for the Iraq
"emergency" - he fucks off and leaves the hall. A few minutes later, Sen.
Tom Coburn of Oklahoma - one of the so-called honest Republicans who has
clashed with his own party's leadership on spending issues - appears in the
hall and whines to the empty room about all the lavish pork projects and
sheer unadulterated waste jammed into the bill. But aside from a
bored-looking John Cornyn of Texas, who is acting as president pro tempore,
and a couple of giggling, suit-clad pages, there is no one in the hall to
listen to him.
In the Sixties and Seventies, Congress met an average of 162 days a
year. In the Eighties and Nineties, the average went down to 139 days. This
year, the second session of the 109th Congress will set the all-time record
for fewest days worked by a US Congress: ninety-three. That means that House
members will collect their $165,000 paychecks for only three months of
What this means is that the current Congress will not only beat but
shatter the record for laziness set by the notorious "Do-Nothing" Congress
of 1948, which met for a combined 252 days between the House and the Senate.
This Congress - the Do-Even-Less Congress - met for 218 days, just over half
a year, between the House and the Senate combined.
And even those numbers don't come close to telling the full story. Those
who actually work on the Hill will tell you that a great many of those
"workdays" were shameless mail-ins, half-days at best. Congress has arranged
things now so that the typical workweek on the Hill begins late on Tuesday
and ends just after noon on Thursday, to give members time to go home for
the four-day weekend. This is borne out in the numbers: On nine of its
"workdays" this year, the House held not a single vote - meeting for less
than eleven minutes. The Senate managed to top the House's feat, pulling off
three workdays this year that lasted less than one minute. All told, a full
fifteen percent of the Senate's workdays lasted less than four hours.
Figuring for half-days, in fact, the 109th Congress probably worked almost
two months less than that "Do-Nothing" Congress.
Congressional laziness comes at a high price. By leaving so many
appropriations bills unpassed by the beginning of the new fiscal year,
Congress forces big chunks of the government to rely on "continuing
resolutions" for their funding. Why is this a problem? Because under
congressional rules, CRs are funded at the lowest of three levels: the level
approved by the House, the level approved by the Senate or the level
approved from the previous year. Thanks to wide discrepancies between House
and Senate appropriations for social programming, CRs effectively operate as
a backdoor way to slash social programs. It's also a nice way for
congressmen to get around having to pay for expensive-ass programs they
voted for, like No Child Left Behind and some of the other terminally
underfunded boondoggles of the Bush years.
"The whole point of passing appropriations bills is that Congress is
supposed to make small increases in programs to account for things like the
increase in population," says Adam Hughes, director of federal fiscal policy
for OMB Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "It's their main job." Instead,
he says, the reliance on CRs "leaves programs underfunded."
Instead of dealing with its chief constitutional duty - approving all
government spending - Congress devotes its time to dumb bullshit. "This
Congress spent a week and a half debating Terri Schiavo - it never made
appropriations a priority," says Hughes. In fact, Congress leaves itself so
little time to pass the real appropriations bills that it winds up rolling
them all into one giant monstrosity known as an Omnibus bill and passing it
with little or no debate. Rolling eight-elevenths of all federal spending
into a single bill that hits the floor a day or two before the fiscal year
ends does not leave much room to check the fine print. "It allows a lot more
leeway for fiscal irresponsibility," says Hughes.
A few years ago, when Democratic staffers in the Senate were frantically
poring over a massive Omnibus bill they had been handed the night before the
scheduled vote, they discovered a tiny provision that had not been in any of
the previous versions. The item would have given senators on the
Appropriations Committee access to the private records of any taxpayer -
essentially endowing a few selected hacks in the Senate with the license to
snoop into the private financial information of all Americans.
"We were like, 'What the hell is this?'" says one Democratic aide
familiar with the incident. "It was the most egregious thing imaginable. It
was just lucky we caught them."
Step Three: Let the President Do Whatever He Wants
The constitution is very clear on the responsibility of Congress to
serve as a check on the excesses of the executive branch. The House and
Senate, after all, are supposed to pass all laws - the president is simply
supposed to execute them. Over the years, despite some ups and downs,
Congress has been fairly consistent in upholding this fundamental
responsibility, regardless of which party controlled the legislative branch.
Elected representatives saw themselves as beholden not to their own party or
the president but to the institution of Congress itself. The model of
congressional independence was Sen. William Fulbright, who took on McCarthy,
Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon with equal vigor during the course of his long
"Fulbright behaved the same way with Nixon as he did with Johnson," says
Wheeler, the former Senate aide who worked on both sides of the aisle. "You
wouldn't see that today."
In fact, the Republican-controlled Congress has created a new standard
for the use of oversight powers. That standard seems to be that when a
Democratic president is in power, there are no matters too stupid or
meaningless to be investigated fully - but when George Bush is president, no
evidence of corruption or incompetence is shocking enough to warrant
congressional attention. One gets the sense that Bush would have to drink
the blood of Christian babies to inspire hearings in Congress - and only
then if he did it during a nationally televised State of the Union address
and the babies were from Pennsylvania, where Senate Judiciary chairman Arlen
Specter was running ten points behind in an election year.
The numbers bear this out. From the McCarthy era in the 1950s through
the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995, no Democratic committee
chairman issued a subpoena without either minority consent or a committee
vote. In the Clinton years, Republicans chucked that long-standing
arrangement and issued more than 1,000 subpoenas to investigate alleged
administration and Democratic misconduct, reviewing more than 2 million
pages of government documents.
Guess how many subpoenas have been issued to the White House since
George Bush took office? Zero - that's right, zero, the same as the number
of open rules debated this year; two fewer than the number of appropriations
bills passed on time.
And the cost? Republicans in the Clinton years spent more than $35
million investigating the administration. The total amount of taxpayer funds
spent, when independent counsels are taken into account, was more than $150
million. Included in that number was $2.2 million to investigate former HUD
secretary Henry Cisneros for lying about improper payments he made to a
mistress. In contrast, today's Congress spent barely half a million dollars
investigating the outright fraud and government bungling that followed
Hurricane Katrina, the largest natural disaster in American history.
"Oversight is one of the most important functions of Congress - perhaps
more important than legislating," says Rep. Henry Waxman. "And the
Republicans have completely failed at it. I think they decided that they
were going to be good Republicans first and good legislators second."
As the ranking minority member of the Government Reform Committee,
Waxman has earned a reputation as the chief Democratic muckraker,
obsessively cranking out reports on official misconduct and incompetence.
Among them is a lengthy document detailing all of the wrongdoing by the Bush
administration that should have been investigated - and would have been, in
any other era. The litany of fishy behavior left uninvestigated in the Bush
years includes the manipulation of intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons
of mass destruction, the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees, the leak of
Valerie Plame's CIA status, the award of Halliburton contracts, the White
House response to Katrina, secret NSA wiretaps, Dick Cheney's energy task
force, the withholding of Medicare cost estimates, the administration's
politicization of science, contract abuses at Homeland Security and lobbyist
influence at the EPA.
Waxman notes that the failure to investigate these issues has actually
hurt the president, leaving potentially fatal flaws in his policies
unexamined even by those in his own party. Without proper congressional
oversight, small disasters like the misuse of Iraq intelligence have turned
into huge, festering, unsolvable fiascoes like the Iraq occupation.
Republicans in Congress who stonewalled investigations of the administration
"thought they were doing Bush a favor," says Waxman. "But they did him the
biggest disservice of all."
Congress has repeatedly refused to look at any aspect of the war. In
2003, Republicans refused to allow a vote on a bill introduced by Waxman
that would have established an independent commission to review the false
claims Bush made in asking Congress to declare war on Iraq. That same year,
the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Porter Goss, refused to hold
hearings on whether the administration had forged evidence of the nuclear
threat allegedly posed by Iraq. A year later the chair of the Government
Reform Committee, Tom Davis, refused to hold hearings on new evidence
casting doubt on the "nuclear tubes" cited by the Bush administration before
the war. Sen. Pat Roberts, who pledged to issue a Senate Intelligence
Committee report after the 2004 election on whether the Bush administration
had misled the public before the invasion, changed his mind after the
president won re-election. "I think it would be a monumental waste of time
to re-plow this ground any further," Roberts said.
Sensenbrenner has done his bit to squelch any debate over Iraq. He
refused a request by John Conyers and more than fifty other Democrats for
hearings on the famed "Downing Street Memo," the internal British document
that stated that Bush had "fixed" the intelligence about the war, and he was
one of three committee chairs who rejected requests for hearings on the
abuse of Iraqi detainees. Despite an international uproar over Abu Ghraib,
Congress spent only twelve hours on hearings on the issue. During the
Clinton administration, by contrast, the Republican Congress spent 140 hours
investigating the president's alleged misuse of his Christmas-card greeting
"You talk to many Republicans in Congress privately, and they will tell
you how appalled they are by the administration's diminishment of civil
liberties and the constant effort to keep fear alive," says Turley, who
testified as a constitutional scholar in favor of the Clinton impeachment.
"Yet those same members slavishly vote with the White House. What's most
alarming about the 109th has been the massive erosion of authority in
Congress. There has always been partisanship, but this is different. Members
have become robotic in the way they vote."
Perhaps the most classic example of failed oversight in the Bush era
came in a little-publicized hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee
held on February 13th, 2003 - just weeks before the invasion of Iraq. The
hearing offered senators a rare opportunity to grill Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld and top Pentagon officials on a wide variety of matters,
including the fairly important question of whether they even had a fucking
plan for the open-ended occupation of a gigantic hostile foreign population
halfway around the planet. This was the biggest bite that Congress would
have at the Iraq apple before the war, and given the gravity of the issue,
it should have been a beast of a hearing.
But it wasn't to be. In a meeting that lasted two hours and fifty-three
minutes, only one question was asked about the military's readiness on the
eve of the invasion. Sen. John Warner, the committee's venerable and
powerful chairman, asked Gen. Richard Myers if the US was ready to fight
simultaneously in both Iraq and North Korea, if necessary.
Myers answered, "Absolutely."
And that was it. The entire exchange lasted fifteen seconds. The rest of
the session followed a pattern familiar to anyone who has watched a hearing
on C-Span: The members, when they weren't reading or chatting with one
another, used their time with witnesses almost exclusively to address
parochial concerns revolving around pork projects in their own districts.
Warner set the tone in his opening remarks; after announcing that US troops
preparing to invade Iraq could count on his committee's "strongest support,"
the senator from Virginia quickly turned to the question of how the war
would affect the budget for Navy shipbuilding, which, he said, was not
increasing "as much as we wish." Not that there's a huge Navy shipyard in
Newport News, Virginia, or anything.
Other senators followed suit. Daniel Akaka was relatively uninterested
in Iraq but asked about reports that Korea might have a missile that could
reach his home state of Hawaii. David Pryor of Arkansas used his time to
tout the wonders of military bases in Little Rock and Pine Bluff. When the
senators weren't eating up their allotted time in this fashion, they were
usually currying favor with the generals. Warner himself nicely encapsulated
the obsequious tone of the session when he complimented Rumsfeld for having
his shit so together on the war.
"I think your response reflects that we have given a good deal of
consideration," Warner said. "That we have clear plans in place and are
ready to proceed." We all know how that turned out.
Step Four: Spend, Spend, Spend
There is a simple reason that members of Congress don't waste their time
providing any oversight of the executive branch: There's nothing in it for
them. "What they've all figured out is that there's no political payoff in
oversight," says Wheeler, the former congressional staffer. "But there's a
big payoff in pork."
When one considers that Congress has forsaken hearings and debate,
conspired to work only three months a year, completely ditched its
constitutional mandate to provide oversight and passed very little in the
way of meaningful legislation, the question arises: What do they do?
The answer is easy: They spend. When Bill Clinton left office, the
nation had a budget surplus of $236 billion. Today, thanks to Congress, the
budget is $296 billion in the hole. This year, more than sixty-five percent
of all the money borrowed in the entire world will be borrowed by America, a
statistic fueled by the speed-junkie spending habits of our supposedly
"fiscally conservative" Congress. It took forty-two presidents before George
W. Bush to borrow $1 trillion; under Bush, Congress has more than doubled
that number in six years. And more often than not, we are borrowing from
countries the sane among us would prefer not to be indebted to: The US
shells out $77 billion a year in interest to foreign creditors, including
payment on the $300 billion we currently owe China.
What do they spend that money on? In the age of Jack Abramoff, that is
an ugly question to even contemplate. But let's take just one bill, the
so-called energy bill, a big, hairy, favor-laden bitch of a law that started
out as the wet dream of Dick Cheney's energy task force and spent four long
years leaving grease-tracks on every set of palms in the Capitol before
finally becoming law in 2005.
Like a lot of laws in the Bush era, it was crafted with virtually no
input from the Democrats, who were excluded from the conference process. And
during the course of the bill's gestation period we were made aware that
many of its provisions were more or less openly for sale, as in the case of
a small electric utility from Kansas called Westar Energy.
Westar wanted a provision favorable to its business inserted in the
bill - and in an internal company memo, it acknowledged that members of
Congress had requested Westar donate money to their campaigns in exchange
for the provision. The members included former Louisiana congressman Billy
Tauzin and current Energy and Commerce chairman Joe Barton of Texas. "They
have made this request in lieu of contributions made to their own
campaigns," the memo noted. The total amount of Westar's contributions was
Keep in mind, that number - fifty-eight grand - was for a single favor.
The energy bill was loaded with them. Between 2001 and the passage of the
bill, energy companies donated $115 million to federal politicians, with
seventy-five percent of the money going to Republicans. When the bill
finally passed, it contained $6 billion in subsidies for the oil industry,
much of which was funneled through a company with ties to Majority Leader
Tom DeLay. It included an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act for
companies that use a methane-drilling technique called "hydraulic
fracturing" - one of the widest practitioners of which is Halliburton. And
it included billions in subsidies for the construction of new coal plants
and billions more in loan guarantees to enable the coal and nuclear
industries to borrow money at bargain-basement interest rates.
Favors for campaign contributors, exemptions for polluters, shifting the
costs of private projects on to the public - these are the specialties of
this Congress. They seldom miss an opportunity to impoverish the states we
live in and up the bottom line of their campaign contributors. All this
time - while Congress did nothing about Iraq, Katrina, wiretapping, Mark
Foley's boy-madness or anything else of import - it has been all about pork,
all about political favors, all about budget "earmarks" set aside for
expensive and often useless projects in their own districts. In 2000,
Congress passed 6,073 earmarks; by 2005, that number had risen to 15,877.
They got better at it every year. It's the one thing they're good at.
Even worse, this may well be the first Congress ever to lose control of
the government's finances. For the past six years, it has essentially been
writing checks without keeping an eye on its balance. When you do that,
unpleasant notices eventually start appearing in the mail. In 2003, the
inspector general of the Defense Department reported to Congress that the
military's financial-management systems did not comply with "generally
accepted accounting principles" and that the department "cannot currently
provide adequate evidence supporting various material amounts on the
Translation: The Defense Department can no longer account for its money.
"It essentially can't be audited," says Wheeler, the former congressional
staffer. "And nobody did anything about it. That's the job of Congress, but
they don't care anymore."
So not only does Congress not care what intelligence was used to get
into the war, what the plan was supposed to be once we got there, what goes
on in military prisons in Iraq and elsewhere, how military contracts are
being given away and to whom - it doesn't even give a shit what happens to
the half-trillion bucks it throws at the military every year.
Not to say, of course, that this Congress hasn't made an effort to
reform itself. In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, and following a
public uproar over the widespread abuse of earmarks, both the House and the
Senate passed their own versions of an earmark reform bill this year. But
when the two chambers couldn't agree on a final version, the House was left
to pass its own watered-down measure in the waning days of the most recent
session. This pathetically, almost historically half-assed attempt at
reforming corruption should tell you all you need to know about the current
The House rule will force legislators to attach their names to all
earmarks. Well, not all earmarks. Actually, the new rule applies only to
nonfederal funding - money for local governments, nonprofits and
universities. And the rule will remain in effect only for the remainder of
this congressional year - in other words, for the few remaining days of
business after lawmakers return to Washington following the election season.
After that, it's back to business as usual next year.
That is what passes for "corruption reform" in this Congress - forcing
lawmakers to put their names on a tiny fraction of all earmarks. For a
couple of days.
Step Five: Line Your Own Pockets
Anyone who wants to get a feel for the kinds of beasts that have been
roaming the grounds of the congressional zoo in the past six years need only
look at the deranged, handwritten letter that convicted bribe-taker and GOP
ex-congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham recently sent from prison to Marcus
Stern, the reporter who helped bust him. In it, Cunningham - who was
convicted last year of taking $2.4 million in cash, rugs, furniture and
jewelry from a defense contractor called MZM - bitches out Stern in the
broken, half-literate penmanship of a six-year-old put in time-out.
"Each time you print it hurts my family And now I have lost them Along
with Everything I have worked for during my 64 years of life," Cunningham
wrote. "I am human not an Animal to keep whiping [sic]. I made some
decissions [sic] Ill be sorry for the rest of my life."
The amazing thing about Cunningham's letter is not his utter lack of
remorse, or his insistence on blaming defense contractor Mitchell Wade for
ratting him out ("90% of what has happed [sic] is Wade," he writes), but his
frantic, almost epic battle with the English language. It is clear that the
same Congress that put a drooling child-chaser like Mark Foley in charge of
a House caucus on child exploitation also named Cunningham, a man who can
barely write his own name in the ground with a stick, to a similarly
appropriate position. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the former chairman
of the House Subcommittee on Human Intelligence Analysis and
"As truth will come out and you will find out how liablest [sic] you
have & will be. Not once did you list the positives. Education Man of the
Year ... hospital funding, jobs, Hiway [sic] funding, border security,
Megans law my bill, Tuna Dolfin [sic] my bill ... and every time you wanted
an expert on the wars who did you call. No Marcus you write About how I
How liablest you have & will be? What the fuck does that even mean? This
guy sat on the Appropriations Committee for years - no wonder Congress
couldn't pass any spending bills!
This is Congress in the Bush years, in a nutshell - a guy who takes $2
million in bribes from a contractor, whooping it up in turtlenecks and
pajama bottoms with young women on a contractor-provided yacht named after
himself (the "Duke-Stir"), and not only is he shocked when he's caught, he's
too dumb to even understand that he's been guilty of anything.
This kind of appalling moral blindness, a sort of high-functioning,
sociopathic stupidity, has been a consistent characteristic of the numerous
Republicans indicted during the Bush era. Like all revolutionaries, they
seem to feel entitled to break rules in the name of whatever the hell it is
they think they're doing. And when caught breaking said rules with wads of
cash spilling out of their pockets, they appear genuinely indignant at
accusations of wrongdoing. Former House Majority Leader and brazen fuckhead
Tom DeLay, after finally being indicted for money laundering, seemed amazed
that anyone would bring him into court.
"I have done nothing wrong," he declared. "I have violated no law, no
regulation, no rule of the House." Unless, of course, you count the charges
against him for conspiring to inject illegal contributions into state
elections in Texas "with the intent that a felony be committed."
It was the same when Ohio's officious jackass of a (soon-to-be-ex)
Congressman Bob Ney finally went down for accepting $170,000 in trips from
Abramoff in exchange for various favors. Even as the evidence piled high,
Ney denied any wrongdoing. When he finally did plead guilty, he blamed the
sauce. "A dependence on alcohol has been a problem for me," he said.
Abramoff, incidentally, was another Republican with a curious inability
to admit wrongdoing even after conviction; even now he confesses only to
trying too hard to "save the world." But everything we know about Abramoff
suggests that Congress has embarked on a never-ending party, a wild
daisy-chain of golf junkets, skybox tickets and casino trips. Money is
everywhere and guys like Abramoff found ways to get it to guys like Ney, who
made the important discovery that even a small entry in the Congressional
Record can get you a tee time at St. Andrews.
Although Ney is so far the only congressman to win an all-expenses trip
to prison as a result of his relationship with Abramoff, nearly a dozen
other House Republicans are known to have done favors for him. Rep. Jim
McCrery of Louisiana, who accepted some $36,000 from Abramoff-connected
donors, helped prevent the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians from opening a
casino that would have competed with Abramoff's clients. Rep. Deborah Pryce,
who sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton opposing the Jena
casino, received $8,000 from the Abramoff money machine. Rep. John
Doolittle, whose wife was hired to work for Abramoff's sham charity, also
intervened on behalf of the lobbyist's clients.
Then there was DeLay and his fellow Texan, Rep. Pete Sessions, who did
Abramoff's bidding after accepting gifts and junkets. So much energy devoted
to smarmy little casino disputes at a time when the country was careening
toward disaster in Iraq: no time for oversight but plenty of time for golf.
For those who didn't want to go the black-bag route, there was always
the legal jackpot. Billy Tauzin scarcely waited a week after leaving office
to start a $2 million-a-year job running PhRMA, the group that helped him
push through a bill prohibiting the government from negotiating lower prices
for prescription drugs. Tauzin also became the all-time poster boy for pork
absurdity when a "greenbonds initiative" crafted in his Energy and Commerce
Committee turned out to be a subsidy to build a Hooters in his home state of
The greed and laziness of the 109th Congress has reached such epic
proportions that it has finally started to piss off the public. In an April
poll by CBS News, fully two-thirds of those surveyed said that Congress has
achieved "less than it usually does during a typical two-year period." A
recent Pew poll found that the chief concerns that occupy Congress - gay
marriage and the inheritance tax - are near the bottom of the public's list
of worries. Those at the top - education, health care, Iraq and Social
Security - were mostly blown off by Congress. Even a Fox News poll found
that fifty-three percent of voters say Congress isn't "working on issues
important to most Americans."
One could go on and on about the scandals and failures of the past six
years; to document them all would take ... well, it would take more than
ninety-three fucking days, that's for sure. But you can boil the whole
sordid mess down to a few basic concepts. Sloth. Greed. Abuse of power.
Hatred of democracy. Government as a cheap backroom deal, finished in time
for thirty-six holes of the world's best golf. And brains too stupid to be
ashamed of any of it. If we have learned nothing else in the Bush years,
it's that this Congress cannot be reformed. The only way to change it is to
get rid of it.
Fortunately, we still get that chance once in a while.
See our picks for the 10 Worst Congressmen and read what people are
saying in our politics blog.