P8kice8zq6szrqrmqxag

Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

A few days ago I said that the Democrats have yet to really understand what it means to be or act like a true party of opposition. I mean many things by this, which I hope to explore in the coming weeks and months. But in this case, for what we're discussing on the site now, I'm referring to how opposition can enable reformism.

Before 1994 and, to a lesser degree, before 2000, Democrats simply weren't in a position to adopt a genuine reform agenda because they were too implicated in the institutional corruption, the money chase, that is modern Washington. They could want change in some abstract way and they push for it at the margins. But their way of doing business on the Hill and in Washington generally was inseparable from it. It's how they ran Congress; it was how they raised their money to win elections; their friends (and that means personal and professional friends) who'd already cycled into the lobbying sector made their money from it; and many or most of them expected eventually to do the same.

I know this paints with a broad brush; and in some ways it may paint an ungenerous picture. But it is in most respects accurate.

For some years after 1994 congressional Democrats understandably acted as though they were the natural majority just temporarily displaced. So all those tendencies remained. And, as I noted above, to a lesser degree, they persisted through 2000 because holding the White House created parallel dynamics.

But now none of those are true. And the Democrats’ exclusion not just from power but from the money and lobbying game is far greater than that which the Republicans faced when they were in the minority.

There are two reasons for this: one structural and one political.

First, when the Democrats were in the majority, the two parties roughly split the money. By and large, business gave money to the Dems because they had power and to the Republicans because of their policies. That doesn’t mean there weren’t lots of pro-business Democrats, both in good ways and bad. But that basic paradigm captures the pre-1994 reality, particularly for the last ten to twenty years of the Dems’ majority. Once the Dems lost their majority and seemed destined for a long period out of power, political money swung strongly in the Republicans' favor.

Second, folks like Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist and others have worked diligently for the last decade to turn K Street into an arm of the Republican machine. That has meant telling trade groups and industry lobbies in no uncertain terms not to hire Democrats. Do so and you’ll be blackballed, is the message.

Placing Republican soldiers (ex-Hill staffers, pols, and operatives) as heads of the major trade organizations not only gives the GOP machine a finer control over K Street --- its money-giving, its political influence and its capacity to make trouble --- it also creates a ready source of patronage, a source of high-salaried jobs where political talent and loyalists can be placed before they move on to their next task. This is the nuts-and-bolts of what people are talking about when they compare the GOP’s Washington machine to Tammany Hall and the urban political machines of old.

There are quite a few downsides to total exclusion from power in Washington; but there are a few upsides too. And one is the ability to push for genuine reform, to think seriously, creatively and (relatively) unrestrainedly about change (and not just ape it, as the Republicans did in the early ‘90s.) Yet, too many Democrats don't seem to see clearly enough that on this point politics and principle entirely coincide for them.

Let me finish on this note.

I’ve always been a bit sour and suspicious about that political creature homo goodgovernmentus, and the allure of a politics unconnected to interests or money or patronage. There is such a thing as ‘honest graft’, to use the phrase of the old city machines. Patronage and political machines can and often do help to shape politics in beneficial ways. And to me getting good results in legislation and governance is much more important than the purity of how those results are achieved. At their worst good government or clean government types put the niceties of process and purity over the good legislation. (That's one reason why reformism has often had a hard time escaping an elitist coloration.)

But American history goes in cycles; the tide of institutional corruption ebbs and flows. And one needn’t indulge in naïve fantasies that the power of money or interests or greed can ever be expelled from politics to see that the pendulum has swung very far in their direction at the moment and that their influence can and must be restrained far more than they presently are.

Just as you can’t prevent barnacles from fixing themselves to the hulls of ships that doesn’t mean that you don’t periodically scrape them off when they become wildly overgrown.

Right now the hull of the ship of state is horribly overgrown with barnacles and all manner of other moneyed and interested crustaceans. And just as it makes no sense to let positive change be stymied by a too fastidious concern with clean political process, we’re now at the point where the dirtiness of politics --- or rather the institutional corruption, no, the legalized prostitution that our politics now is --- makes progressive legislation in the public interest close to impossible. All the more reason for Democrats to yoke together their values and their political interest and become a genuine party of reform.

More reader response ...

Public review of bills: Having worked in government relations for a major corporation, I can tell you without hesitation: Big business would hate it and it would help cleanse the process (reduced pork and hidden deals ) and return the media to a role more in keeping with the framers' intent.

Greg F.


More to follow ...

A personal and professional note: I would be remiss if I did not mention that as of today the TPM world headquarters has relocated from Washington, DC to New York. I've actually been spending the majority of my time here for a few months. So you shouldn't notice any great difference. And I'll be in DC regularly. (In fact, I'm training down this evening.) But this is now the home base.

Some reader response to the public access to legislation idea.

Most responses were quite positive. But one reader wrote the following ...

Josh, I've only viewed lawmaking from afar, but the idea of opening up bills to public viewing seems problematic. As a journalism student I hear about and, to a degree, internalize the value of transparency in the editorial process, so it seems a logical extension to support the same principle in legislative process. The rub, though, lies in the obvious follow-up questions: what kind of citizen action ensues once we open bills to public view? Will interest groups and constituents begin poring over bills and blogger comments on them, then flood Congresspersons with emails and calls and letters? My guess is yes. Then what effect does this action have on legislators and staff? Will the tide of feedback choke the process, resulting in gridlock? Again, my guess is yes. Given the GOP agenda, it's tempting to call this a good thing, but it just feels wrong to support a new rule because of its obstructive value, especially because it doesn't really jibe with the goal of promoting good government. As a principle, transparency is great, but we need to weigh its likely consequences before giving any measure our support or disapproval.

Dan N.


Another former Hill staffer provided the following historical context ...

Josh: I've been away from the Senate for 2 years ( I left after 26 years in senior management positions for three Democratic US Senators), so I'm sure one of your friends might have a more contemporary response to your post. But, here's mine: What you propose--having the bills available to the public at least 3 days before being voted on--was, at one time, the normal course of business. The process the way it's suppose to run (and the way it ran when I first came to work in Congress 25+ years ago):

A budget gets adopted in April or so, which gives the appropriations committees their spending target levels.

Once they have their target levels, each appropriations subcommittee puts together its bill. I believe there are 13 different subcommittees and 13 different bills.

Each one of those bills is brought to the floor for consideration. A copy of the committee-passed bill is published in advance for members and the public, along with a committee report, which is a layman's description of the bill. The normal course of business is to pass 13 separate, free standing appropriations bills.

I believe the problem this past year was the Republicans were unable to agree on a budget. The appropriations committee waited for that budget until they could wait no longer, and then started forward with spending targets they worked on themselves. An election year, coupled with infighting among Republicans on what their spending priorities should be, led them to conclude it would be better to wait until after the election to finish their "business." Democrats in Congress could pledge to:

Not have multi bill appropriations, like this 3000 page bill;

Or, at a minimum, have any appropriations bill available to the public for at least three days, regardless of whether its a single bill or big package of appropriations bills.

Hope this helps. Let me know if you have questions.

GB

[In a subsequent email, the same emailer added following ...]

One point to make clear--there obviously were similar, multi-subcommittee bills that passed as one large appropriations bill when the Democrats controlled Congress. I don't have access to stats on how many times "we" did it, but we did it, too. I don't remember whether we sprung it on people without the opportunity to review it. However, the more common situation was one or two, or maybe three of the most controversial bills being put together in one bill at the end, when it became clear that they couldn't pass on their own. If my memory is correct, I think the stats would reveal that to be more often the case.


More on this to <$NoAd$>follow ...

Like we said (from WaPo...)

With the three Cabinet replacements Bush has announced so far for his second term, he kept his circle tight by dispatching White House staff members to take over the State, Justice and Education departments. Aides said many other such moves will be announced, because Bush and senior adviser Karl Rove are determined to "implant their DNA throughout the government," as one official put it.


No dissent, no second-guessing, no challenging preconceived notions.

I mentioned a couple days ago how important reader emails are to this site. At the same time, though, in the hundreds or often thousands of emails that come in every week there are many suggestions which can't but seem naive or unrealistic to a jaded Washington eye. Sometimes they're infected with blog triumphalism, an unrestrained belief that blogs or similarly-situated sites can and should revolutionize all politics and media (an attitude with which I have little patience.)

Last week, when news of the Istook Amendment first surfaced, I received several emails that seemed clearly to fall into this category. Since the tax-snooping language was only spotted by a rushed staffer in the few hours Senators and their staffs had to read over the bill, a number of TPM readers suggested that blogs and their readers be harnessed to comb through future bills to uncover whatever foolish, nefarious or simply unconscionable provisions might be lurking inside them.

At first, as I said, though the intention seemed admirable, I wasn't particularly impressed by this idea. But over a few days, as I considered it further, it occurred to me that maybe I was the one who wasn't being realistic or rather was too stuck in conventional ways of thinking.

Allow me to explain.

Democrats are already pushing for a return to the observance of the rule which mandated that members of congress must be given at least three days to review legislation in its final form before it was called to a vote.

But why stop there? Giving legislators a reasonable opportunity to review a bill before they vote to make it law is the barest of bare minimums, especially now that bills are often coming out of conference in a dramatically new form. But why should only legislators get a chance to look at the bill? Forget the issue of purported centrality of blogs. Why not make bills publicly and readily available (and I emphasize 'readily') for three days before they can be brought to a vote?

I can think of a number of reasons why not to. (I can imagine friends on the Hill sending me long lists of them.) But I'm not sure any of them are good reasons. Yes, it would expose the unseemly work of legislative horse-trading without which successful coalition and law-making may not be possible. A more valid concern is that the 'public' process would be heavily weighted toward single-interest advocacy groups -- pro-choice and pro-life, gun control vs. pro-gun, etc. -- since those are the only ones organized and resourceful enough to act.

But again, are any of those reasons good ones balanced against the public's right to know in advance what their elected representatives are voting on? And, remember, this isn't some abstract issue of transparency. Keeping the contents of legislation not only secret from the public but from legislators themselves kills accountability and makes it far too easy for private interests to feed off the public interest.

Lurking in the background here are two related issues we'll be returning to: whether the Democratic party can embrace a true, rather than a cosmetic, agenda of reform and whether Democrats, after ten years out of power in Congress and four years in exile from the White House, can start acting like a true opposition party.

This may sound like a funny thing to note two weeks after the fact, but in all the wreckage of November 2nd and the distractions of packing and proposal writing I neglected to mark the anniversary of this site, which fell on November 12th. (You can see the site's first post here.)

That's four years of writing Talking Points Memo.

Let me extend a very sincere and heartfelt note of appreciation to the readers of this site for making it possible for me to do this. Not only could this site not exist without its readers (that goes for every publication), but writing it would simply be impossible (and that's far from true for every publication) since so many ideas and connections and factoids and insights come in from readers' emails. If you haven't written a blog, I'm not sure it's possible to realize just how true that is.

I love magazine writing. But it's very much a solitary and uni-directional process. And this is far from that. It's not like letters-to-the-editor; it's an integral part of how the site gets put together. You honor me when you stop by; and for that I am truly thankful.

Let me also thank Henry Copeland, Zander Dryer, Larry Glenn, Avi Zenilman and others who'll remain nameless who've helped me, in various and innumerable ways, to put this site together.

For you hardcore DeLay Rule obsessives out there whose thirst isn't slaked even by TPM, here's a new interactive and all-bells-and-whistle-ified database of how everyone voted, or didn't vote. It was put together in coordination with the folks at The Daily DeLay.

And here's a fun story from the Albany Times-Union on the quest of a few hardy TPM readers trying to find out how their congressman, John Sweeney, came down on the DeLay Rule. Sweeney spokesman Demetrios Karoutsos told the Times-Union that the "vast majority" of callers were satisfied with Sweeney's status as a letter-writer. Those who weren't, he said, "obviously had other motives."

It's like I always say. Those Upstate Republicans, they play rough.

Another Connecticut Republican gets the shaft from Rep. Istook: this time, eastern Connecticut's Rob Simmons.

The issue is transportation funding for Simmons' district. And I was going to say he got the pork shaft. But I quickly realized that that might give the metaphor an awkward tilt -- particularly, I would imagine, for Rep. Istook. So I thought better of it.

Back to the topic at hand ...

There is no constitutional right to appropriations pork. So, aside from tweaking folks a bit, you can't exactly claim that there's an issue of high principle here. But I am curious to know more about the nitty-gritty dynamics of what happened here (see this earlier post for details.) Is this another sign of House majority hubris? Perhaps one more telling and significant than the DeLay Rule or the Istook Amendment?

Here's what I mean. The GOP congressional majority rests on its dominance in the reddest of the red states -- particularly, in the South. But it can't survive without healthy representation in every region -- even in the Northeast, perhaps especially there, since it's there that the balance is hardest to pull off.

Back in the Gingrich era I remember often being surprised at how good Gingrich's relations were with many of the moderates. For all his bluster, he understood the importance of finding ways to help the bluer sort of Republican survive in parts of the country that were very different from the GOP's southern heartland.

I don't know the internal dynamics of the House or the GOP caucus well enough to know. And perhaps this is just an Istook story, aberrational rather than representative. But it makes me wonder if House Republicans are now feeling confident enough of their majority that they don't feel the need to cultivate or protect colleagues like these with whom, in truth, they have little in common.

The fact that Istook meted out this punishment over a disagreement about the regionally-tinged issue of funding Amtrak -- a spending priority which is rather more dear in the Northeast than in Oklahoma -- adds to my curiosity.

The pity of it all. These northeastern <$NoAd$>moderates like Boehlert and McHugh and Gerlach gave the thumbs up to the DeLay Rule. But that didn't stop them from getting thrown down under the tracks a couple days later by another one of Ernie Istook's last-minute appropriations surprises.

We pick the story up in The Hill ...

Deep in the transportation section of this year’s omnibus spending bill, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) dispensed a little appropriator’s justice, punishing 21 Republicans who wrote him a letter in support of $1.8 billion for Amtrak.

...

Istook’s anti-Amtrak retribution hit several of the Republican majority’s most vulnerable members, including Reps. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) and Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), two Northeastern centrists who won tight races, in part, by convincing constituents of their ability to bring home road money.

The affected lawmakers did not learn of Istook’s drastic action until last Saturday, when the bill was passed. Several of them contacted Republican leaders to inquire if they knew of Istook’s punitive action and were told that party leaders were unaware that Istook was harming vulnerable members.

In addition to Gerlach and Simmons, Reps. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) and Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) were said to be particularly outraged at Istook’s actions, according several committee sources. Upon learning that his projects were cut, McHugh came close to physical blows with Istook, according to some accounts.


Simmons got hosed too, of course. But at least he kept his dignity intact on the DeLay Rule.

LiveWire