Tuesday, January 31, 2006

When Norman J. Ornstein Talks, I Listen

Norman Ornstein has been analyzing Washington politics for over 30 years. At his home think tank, the often right-to-far-right leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI), he's the exception. The one who seems to be the token liberal, but that's only in comparison to his AEI associates, such as Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, David Frum, John Yoo and Irving Kristol.

Dr. Ornstein is very much a centrist. In fact, in many ways he's non-partisan. What he does best is cut through the crap of policy and governance issues. It just happens that the overwhelming majority of the crap coming out of Washington these days is coming from the majority Republicans.... and this crap far, far exceeds the type and magnitude of the crap that the Democrats may have given us when they were in power.

(I'll also add that he's very much a gentlemen, as evidenced by his promptly responding to phone messages and emails that I left for him last fall.)

In a recent NY Times op-ed, Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution offered their take on the real issue underlying congressional corruption (and other) scandals.

It all comes down to a lack of respect for rules and custom. I quote and paraphrase here (but check out the original op-ed):

"...this is not simply a problem of a rogue lobbyist or a pack of them. Nor is it a matter of a handful of disconnected, corrupt lawmakers taking favors in return for official actions.

The problem starts not with lobbyists but inside Congress. Over the past five years, the rules and norms that govern Congressional deliberation, debate and voting - what legislative aficionados call "the regular order" - have routinely been violated, especially in the House of Representatives, and in ways that mark a dramatic break from custom.

  • Roll call votes on the House floor, which are supposed to take 15 minutes, are frequently stretched to one, two or three hours. (House rules don't set a maximum period of 15 minutes for most roll call votes. But since the advent of electronic voting in 1973, 15 minutes has been the norm.)
  • Rules forbidding any amendments to bills on the floor have proliferated, stifling dissent and quashing legitimate debate.
  • Omnibus bills, sometimes thousands of pages long, are brought to the floor with no notice, let alone the 72 hours the rules require.
  • Conference committees exclude minority members and cut deals in private, sometimes even adding major provisions after the conference has closed.
  • Majority leaders still pressure members who object to the chicanery to vote yea in the legislation's one up-or-down vote.
  • The majority Republicans bypass normal procedures and ignore objections that parliamentary rules have been violated. They then reframe substantive issues as procedural matters that demand party discipline.

What has all this got to do with corruption? If you can play fast and loose with the rules of the game in lawmaking, it becomes easier to consider playing fast and loose with everything else, including relations with lobbyists, acceptance of favors, the use of official resources and the discharge of governmental power.

The original op-ed here....

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