Recently I ran across a small book, a collection of essays called "A House of Ill Repute," that should strike fear in the heart of today's Republican majority in Congress. Its critique of the status quo is devastating.
Are you amazed at how little power the minority has, especially in the authoritarian House of Representatives? One shrewd contributor thundered against "the tyranny of the majority." He declared that "millions of Americans" were deprived of "their fair representation in the formulation of public policy" and that "the majority in the House has many ways to pass its pet legislation or stall other bills without due regard for proper debate and deliberation."
Are you astonished at the eagerness of this supposedly small-government Congress to lavish huge sums on a transportation bill and a slew of tax breaks for oil and gas interests? "In their effort to spend more money, spendaholics will use three basic defenses for their votes," says another writer. "First, it's the wrong time and the wrong place. Second, however bad this waste is, there is other waste that is worse. Third, whatever cuts you want to make are clearly extremism."
Another representative lamented: "I sense arrogance on the part of many of my colleagues. It is easy to see how much arrogance can take hold when members of Congress seem to be unaccountable for their actions."
The author of the introductory essay summed up the case by referring to the homeowner who realizes one day that his "entire house is shabby and needs major attention."
Perhaps you have already guessed that these attacks are not the work of frustrated, bloody-minded Democrats weary of their current minority status in Congress. They come from a book published in 1987 by a group of Republican House members. The authors of the above quotations are, in order, former representatives Vin Weber, Newt Gingrich, Barbara Vucanovich and Joseph J. DioGuardi.
The accepted wisdom in Washington 18 years ago was that cynical voters would never respond to a critique of Congress based on questionable ethics and unfair procedures. That this assumption was eventually overturned should shake any complacency in today's Republican majority.
But before Democrats get too buoyant, they should remember that it took years -- specifically, until the 1994 elections -- for the GOP critique to translate into a voter rebellion. Democrats should note that the earlier Republican criticisms of the Democratic majority were rooted in policy, not just procedure. Today's spendthrift Republicans make it easy to poke fun at Gingrich's critique of Democratic "spendaholics." Nonetheless, the Republican assault between 1987 and 1994 regularly linked the Democratic majority's abuse of power to big deficits and to what Gingrich called the "spending runaround." Whether they liked Gingrich or not, the voters felt they knew what he and his majority stood for.
Democrats have yet to make that leap. A survey this month by the Democracy Corps, a consortium of Democratic consultants, found that while 58 percent of Americans said they wanted Congress to move in a "significantly different direction," only 48 percent said they were likely to vote Democratic in congressional elections. With Republicans floundering at 41 percent, Democrats were pleased. But the 10-point gap between support for Democrats and opposition to Congress's current ways describes the difference between potential success and actual success -- between the Republican critics of 1987 and the Republican victors of 1994.
Democrats will never win as the party of small government. Their case will ultimately rest on a persuasive argument that they would wield power on behalf of a different set of causes and interests. That is why the party was wise to unite in defense of Social Security -- and why it would be foolish for Democrats to cave in to the evisceration of the estate tax, a move that would boost the deficit in the interest of a tiny number of very wealthy Americans. It is also why Democrats who would give in to big-money politics and abandon efforts to strengthen the reformed campaign finance system don't understand the implications of their own critique of today's Congress. And rhetoric about defending middle-class living standards must be rooted in a plausible set of policies.
Gingrich's 1987 rebels knew how to link impatience with an abusive Congress to the cause of smaller government. If there is a line for the opposition to draw in politics now, it concerns whether government will defend the interests of the few or the interests of the many. Democrats who say they are studying how Gingrich succeeded need to take his entire course.