The holiday season is upon us, a time to gather with family and friends in the spirit of fellowship, to look back at the past year with thanks, to look forward to the promise a new year brings – and to plot revenge against our political enemies.
Unfortunately for such right-wing types as myself, in holiday seasons past, plotting was about as far as we got. This year, however, looks to be different. Thanks to the change in power in Washington, we actually may be able to make the leap from plotting revenge to exacting it. It is, of course, an awesome responsibility, one not to be taken lightly. If we seem like we are in any way enjoying this task, well, it’s probably just the Christmas eggnog.
Here are two major areas to which we can look forward:
The president’s budget will be “dead on arrival” – that magical phrase from the 1980s that greeted just about every single Reagan administration budget when it arrived on Capitol Hill. The Democrats running the show there knew something that most Americans learned only recently: Congress calls the shots on government spending. The executive branch can propose all the cuts in spending it wants – as was the case during the Reagan administration. Congress is free to ignore them at will.
It’s interesting that a whole subsidiary mythology has sprung up around the question of where the power of the purse really lies. In answer to the charge that GOP administrations ran up the deficit with reckless abandon, Republicans have made the point tirelessly, over the years, that the president cannot spend a dime that is not appropriated by Congress. But this was viewed as a tad too exculpatory. And it is true that cutting spending and a return to the idea of limited government were not themes consistently sounded by the Bush administration, nor the second Reagan administration – nor did the first Reagan administration go to the mat with Capitol Hill about spending.
But the subsidiary mythology holds that Republicans never wanted to cut spending in the first place. Ronald Reagan enjoyed “de facto” control of Congress, and he didn’t even make good on his pledge to get rid of the Education Department.
No, no, no. There is a world of difference between “de facto” control and actual control. And there also may be a world of difference between GOP sentiment on spending cuts then and now. The point is that Republicans now are quite willing to cut federal spending. And they have the political power to do so, as the Clinton administration is about to find out.
Put it this way: The Clinton budget arrives on Capitol Hill, and the GOP majority says, “No, the Defense Department is going to have all the tanks it wants, and the National Endowment for the Arts is going to have to have a bake sale.”
The Clinton administration was doubly blessed by Democratic control of Congress. First, it escaped a number of scandals that would, as a matter of course, have been the subject of congressional scrutiny had they occurred during Republican administrations. Where to begin? Whitewater, of course – the two hearings conducted in the old Congress were limited severely in scope, the one in the House crossing over into farce for its lack of illumination.
Then there’s the firing of the staff at the White House Travel Office, the search through Bush State Department personnel files, the checkered career of outgoing Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros’ candor with the FBI in relation to payments to his former mistress – and on and on.
Let’s put it this way: The nation’s No. 3 law enforcement official, a close friend of the president and former law partner of the first lady, is a crook by his own admission, having bilked his clients and firm of hundreds of thousands of dollars and done his bit for the federal deficit by evading his tax obligation on the money. Wow! That’s the sort of thing the new Congress really is going to have to look into.
But that’s not all. During Republican administrations, congressional committees made ferocious pests of themselves through constant demands for documents and personal appearances by executive branch officials, to the point at which many in the GOP administrations complained that it was virtually impossible to get anything else done. With a couple of exceptions – the administration’s desire to lift the ban on gays in the military, the CIA budget – the Clinton administration escaped this as well. No more.
Now, there are those who would say that all of this is hypocritical, that right-wingers such as myself used to be all in favor of executive powers and suspicious of congressional attempts to usurp them, of Congress’ willingness to micromanage the executive branch and insistence on conducting elaborate hearings at the merest whiff of scandal.
To this, I have two responses. First, our side didn’t make up these rules. Their side did. We argued against them, yes – but we lost. The precedents have been well-established. So it’s time to act in accordance with them.
My second response is: Well, we’ve matured. They were right all along. Pass the eggnog.