The Washington Times

If I had to sum up the conventional wisdom a month before the congressional elections, it would be this: If Democrats can’t win control of the House this year, they really are lame. The trouble with that analysis is that it vastly understates the difficulty of picking up 15 seats in the House of Representatives.

Agreed, Republicans are in huge trouble, especially in the House. In a world of simple cosmic justice, they would indeed lose control. In fact, one may ask, what would a defense of Republican control of the House of Representatives look like? Out of what would you craft such a thing?

Let’s leave aside the Mark Foley scandal for the nonce. Before that, we had the Jack Abramoff scandal, which is really not so much about one superlobbyist gone bad but the culture of interaction between K Street lobbyists and the Republican-controlled House. It’s not that well-heeled corporate interests seek influence in order to obtain favorable legislation. It’s that legislators themselves, when Topic X comes before them, wouldn’t dream of doing anything without first consulting the lobbyists favorably disposed toward them with an interest in Topic X.

Usually, this activity takes place at the staff level, among overworked and not especially well-paid youngish people, generally idealistic in motivation, who nevertheless expect one day to join the ranks of lobbyists themselves, as a kind of reward for time served and experience acquired. It is not cynical but merely a description of reality to say working in a congressional office is job training for a position as a lobbyist.     

This is not unique to Republicans, of course. Neither is the appetite for pork-barrel spending to favor constituents. Yet earmarks have increased by orders of magnitude with the Republicans in charge. As with the influence of the lobbying culture, if you are calling the shots, accountability rests with you.     

Perhaps, in fairness, we should balance these professional deformations against the record of legislative achievement of the Republican Congress. But what achievements would we be referring to? I supported the Bush tax cuts as a spur to economic growth, and that seems to have worked out pretty well, with unprojected increases in tax revenue now bringing the federal deficit down. But, let’s face it, it is not quite politically courageous to cut taxes; it’s an activity that comes as naturally to Republicans as increasing spending does to Democrats. Or perhaps rather one should make that “as increasing spending does to Democrats, and the GOP congressional majority as well.”     

What else? The creation of the Department of Homeland Security? But that was the Bush administration’s idea, and they stole it fair and square from a Democratic proposal. And one could be forgiven for noting that one of the purposes of the legislation was to put Democrats in an awkward position before an election.     

Who, pray, are the great legislators of the Republican Congress? The authors of the energy bill? But the energy bill is a disgrace, and its authors were mainly lobbyists, per above.     

Perhaps the oversight function redeems the Republican Congress? Well, if your idea of good oversight is to keep oversight from getting out of hand, perhaps indeed. There are a number of Democrats who would surely be heavy-handed with the subpoena power in a way that Republicans have not been. But I have long suspected, through Congresses Democratic and Republican, that the oversight function has little to do with the effective operation of the executive and much to do with the pursuit of partisan political advantage. There is no real principled defense of oversight as Congress generally practices it or fails to practice it.    

Top it all off with the Foley scandal. What else is there to say?

For Republicans, chiefly that Democrats would be worse: Speaker Pelosi, Ways and Means Chairman Rangel. But that’s to keep the focus on the national level and the Washington scene. And that’s really not the point. The point is that Democrats need to figure out a net 15 different combinations leading to victory in particular House seats currently held by Republicans. These are districts in which Republican incumbents are running, and therefore have a track record of popularity with their constituents as well the other advantages of incumbency, or districts that have been favorable to Republicans, often because their boundaries were drawn to create exactly such favorable conditions.

If the composition of the House were decided on the basis of a national referendum, then it would make sense to say that if Democrats can’t win this year, they are pathetic losers. But it isn’t, and what’s amazing is that given all the above, there are still serious obstacles in the way of a Democratic takeover.