Correction to This Article
May 26 analysis of Republican efforts to centralize power misspelled the name of Joshua B. Bolten, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Analysis

GOP Tilting Balance Of Power to the Right

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By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005

As Democrats tell it, this week's compromise on judges was about much more than the federal courts. If President Bush and congressional allies had prevailed, they say, the balance of power would have been forever altered.

Yet, amid the partisan rhetoric, a little-noticed fact about modern politics has been lost: Republicans have already changed how the business of government gets done, in ways both profound and lasting.

The campaign to prevent the Senate filibuster of the president's judicial nominations was simply the latest and most public example of similar transformations in Congress and the executive branch stretching back a decade. The common theme is to consolidate influence in a small circle of Republicans and to marginalize dissenting voices that would try to impede a conservative agenda.

House Republicans, for instance, discarded the seniority system and limited the independence and prerogatives of committee chairmen. The result is a chamber effectively run by a handful of GOP leaders. At the White House, Bush has tightened the reins on Cabinet members, centralizing the most important decisions among a tight group of West Wing loyalists. With the strong encouragement of Vice President Cheney, he has also moved to expand the amount of executive branch information that can be legally shielded from Congress, the courts and the public.

Now, the White House and Congress are setting their sights on how to make the judiciary more deferential to the conservative cause -- as illustrated by the filibuster debate and recent threats by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and others to more vigorously oversee the courts.

"I think we have used the legislative and executive branch as well as anybody to achieve our policy aims," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "It is a remarkable governing instrument."

The transformation started in the House in the 1990s and intensified with Bush's 2000 election. The result has been a stronger president working with a compliant and streamlined Congress to push the country, and the courts, in a more conservative direction, according to historians, government scholars, and current and former federal officials.

Some of the changes, such as a more powerful executive branch, less powerful rank-and-file members of Congress and more pro-Republican courts, are likely to outlast the current president and GOP majority, they say. The Republican bid to ban the filibustering of judges made it easier for Bush to appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court and holds open the threat of future attempts to erode the most powerful tool available to the minority party in Congress.

"Every president grabs for more power. What's different it seems to me is the acquiescence of Congress," said former representative Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), a government scholar at the Aspen Institute.

When Republicans won control of the House in 1994, conservatives turned an institution run by Democrats and veteran chairmen into a top-down organization that looked in some ways like the flow chart of a Fortune 500 business. The idea was to put power in the hands of a few leaders and place conservative loyalists in the most important lower-level jobs to move legislation as quickly as possible through Congress, according to current and former lawmakers.

Those who cross party leaders often pay a price, usually by losing positions of influence. Most recently, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) lost the chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee after clashing with party leaders over spending and other issues. At the same time, loyalists are rewarded. The result, writes American University's James A. Thurber in a forthcoming book on Congress and the presidency, is less powerful representatives facing increased pressure to carry out their leadership's wishes.

The GOP unity has led to speedy passage this year of legislation to make it harder for consumers to file for bankruptcy and a budget plan that makes way for more tax cuts and oil drilling in Alaska wilderness.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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