During an official Fourth of July celebration at the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson bumped into each other. They are both steadfast Republicans, devout Catholics and congenial gentlemen, but to onlookers, it seemed an uneasy encounter. That's because Smith was right about a billion-dollar shortfall in veterans' benefits and Nicholson's Bush administration was wrong.
Being right can hurt in Washington. It drove Smith out of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairmanship, and now it may cost him the future chairmanship of the International Relations Committee. Nicholson represents an administration that operates on the principle that being in power means never having to admit being wrong. There is no sign of any Bush official or House Republican leader apologizing to Smith.
Chris Smith, 52 and in his 13th term in Congress, knows that politics is not beanbag. But his misfortune suggests the Republican Party's congenital fault is not being too conservative but trying to be too orderly. While often taking principled stands on unpopular issues, the White House and the House Republican leadership often seem most interested in making the trains run on time. That entails stifling dissent as in the case of Smith.
Actually, Smith is no maverick. He is not part of the tiny liberal Republican clique that regularly opposes President Bush and the House leadership. He is center-right, as reflected by lifetime voting records in the House: 62 percent conservative (American Conservative Union rating) and 36 percent liberal (Americans for Democratic Action rating). He is really more conservative than that as a dependable vote for Bush's priority items, such as cutting taxes and going to war in Iraq. He is a militant social conservative, battling abortion at home and abroad.
Smith's problem has been failing to salute smartly when the leadership gives an order. That is the demand of Tom DeLay, the most effective majority leader in my 45 years of House-watching. DeLay found it intolerable that Smith functioned not as an obedient Republican soldier but as a fervent advocate of former U.S. foot soldiers. At the end of the last Congress, the DeLay-headed leadership purged Smith from the veterans committee chairmanship and from the committee itself for wanting $2.6 billion more for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Smith's vindication came June 28 when the Bush administration admitted that its estimate of 23,553 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan for medical treatment fell far short of the real number: 103,000. The VA's reason was that it relied on two-year-old assumptions. The administration estimated its need for additional funds, coincidentally or not, at Smith's $2.6 billion.
Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, who was leapfrogged by the Republican leadership over two more senior congressmen to replace Smith as chairman, at first followed the party line by saying the shortfall could be covered by shifting funds. But Buyer quickly had to change his position and say more funds were needed, just as Smith had insisted all along.
Before Congress adjourned for its Independence Day recess, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi led a parade of Democrats chiding the administration for its blunder. There will be more of the same when the 2006 VA appropriations bill comes up for House and Senate votes the week of July 25. Republicans have been silent, but some in the House were smirking over Smith's vindication. There is little doubt that Smith would easily have defeated Buyer had there been an open vote of the House Republican Conference without leadership intervention.
Similarly, Smith would be the conference's most likely choice for the International Relations Committee chairmanship against two other well-regarded conservatives, Reps. Dan Burton of Indiana and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. But the choice will be made by the DeLay-dominated Steering Committee, so Smith is a long shot.
If Smith is too independent to be a Republican committee chairman, a consolation prize might be a little commendation from the administration. None has come so far. According to all sources, the shortfall fiasco was not discussed at that Fourth of July chat between Smith and Nicholson. An orderly Republican Party does not dwell on mistakes, even to figure out what went wrong.
(c) 2005 Creators Syndicate Inc.