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.
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.