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.
Page 2 of 2   <      

GOP Tilting Balance Of Power to the Right

With control over the House Rules Committee, which determines which bills make it the floor, how they will be debated and whether they can be amended, Republicans have made it much harder for Democrats to offer alternatives -- for example, a smaller tax cut than one Republicans advocate. Democrats also are increasingly shut out of the final negotiations on legislation between the House and the Senate before bills are sent to Bush for his signature.

Also moving in this direction is the Senate, where Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) seized control of selecting committee members after the 2004 elections increased his majority to 55 seats.

"Anybody with a brain knew once Republicans got their hand on the wheels . . . there was going to be punishment" because they felt silenced and slighted when Democrats were in control, said former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.). "It's unfortunate."

Bush created a top-down system in the White House much like the one his colleagues have in Congress. He has constructed what many scholars said amounts to a virtual oligarchy with Cheney, Karl Rove, Andrew H. Card Jr., Joshua Bolton, himself and only a few others setting policy, while he looks to Congress and the agencies mostly to promote and institute his policies.

President Bill Clinton oversaw a transition of government away from strong agencies, which historically provided a greater variety of opinions in policymaking. "On the surface it looks like Bush is doing this better than Clinton, but there is much more going on," said Paul C. Light, an expert on the executive branch.

Light said Bush has essentially turned most of the agencies into political arms of the White House. "It's not just weakening agencies but strengthening political control of the agencies," he said.

Major policies such as Social Security are produced in the White House, while Cabinet heads and their staffs are tethered. After the 2004 election, the White House began requiring Cabinet members to spend as long as four hours a week working in an office near the West Wing.

"The fact they hold close their Cabinet members is a plus -- it makes for less freelancing," said Rich Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Bush has demanded similar loyalty from GOP lawmakers -- and received it. Republicans have voted with the president, on average, about nine out of 10 times. Critics and some scholars charge that the Congress now seldom performs its constitutional duty of providing oversight of the executive branch through tough investigations and hearings.

This has coincided with a dramatic increase in overall government secrecy. In 1995, the government created about 3.6 million secrets. In 2004, there more than 15.5 million, according to the government's Information Security Oversight Office. The White House attributes the rise in information the public cannot see to the security threats in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.

But experts on government secrecy say it goes beyond protecting sensitive security documents, to creating new classes of information kept private and denying researchers access to documents from past presidents.

"We have never had this kind of control over information," said Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of history at American University. "It means policy is being made by a small clique without much public scrutiny."

Now, the Republicans, with the support of the White House, are looking to reshape the courts in their image. The Senate's bipartisan compromise on judges will cost the president a few of his nominees to the appeals court but will require him to secure only 50 votes for future picks for the Supreme Court and other openings. If Democrats filibuster, Bush and Republican senators can move again to pull the trigger on the "nuclear option" and, if successful, prevent the minority party from ever again using the filibuster on judges. "I will not hesitate to use it if necessary," Frist said this week.

Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) has been assigned by GOP leaders to look for new ways to provide oversight of the federal courts and tougher discipline for judges. In a recent interview he said some judges have "deliberately decided to be in the face of the president and Congress." Senate Republicans are weighing legislation to limit court authority, as well.

"I think they are looking for an influence quotient," Bond said.

But Washington traditionalists -- veteran Republicans among them -- warn that the new breed of GOP leaders is trampling time-honored procedures designed to ensure that multiple voices have influence on the most important matters in government.

"I would remind my friends that you may one day be in the minority and you won't want to be [run] roughshod over," said former minority leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), who served in the House for 38 years, 14 as leader.


<       2

© 2005 The Washington Post Company