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Congress Passes Reform Legislation, While Iraq Debate Deepens

January 19, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, bottom line here is, should this be seen as a major reversal of policy by the president on this surveillance thing?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: It’s hard to tell. It’s clearly some sort of reversal. The question is what they got in their secret FISA procedure they’ve now established.

And one of the things the senators are talking about is that the old system and the problem the administration had with it was that they had to do it case by case. And then, with some of this new technology where they sweep in, you know, lots of phone calls, they thought that was inappropriate.

And some of the senators wanted to know, with this new procedure they’ve set up in secret that they’re not sharing with anybody, is it still case by case or is it somehow allowing for large sweeps? And until we know that, it’s sort of hard to know how big a reversal.

Clearly the politics, the Democrats taking over the Congress, and the court cases that are burbling along clearly had some effect.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, this was not an accident?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I do, Jim. I think that the announcement was made just prior to the attorney general’s first testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee controlled by Democrats, chaired by Pat Leahy, and the July 31 date with the court of appeals.

And I don’t think they wanted to face the possibility — I think they will make the case now that, “We’ve changed our policy so that this is no longer relevant.”

JIM LEHRER: So but there’s clearly, whatever secret process there is, there is now going to be or is judicial review there wasn’t before?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly right.

JIM LEHRER: That is a change.

MARK SHIELDS: They’re going to comply with the same practices and procedures that every other administration has, which they had asserted this rather exceptional executive privilege for the past six years.

Hamilton testifies before the House

David Brooks
New York Times
Iraq has become, in people's minds and in their behavior, a divided country. And people want to act out their own sectarian interests and not any national impartial interests.

JIM LEHRER: OK, on Iraq. What did you think about what Lee Hamilton said today to the House Foreign Affairs Committee?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I think Lee Hamilton makes a lot of sense, you know, virtually all the time he speaks. I thought his argument in favor of the United States negotiating, at least diplomatically...

JIM LEHRER: At least talking.

MARK SHIELDS: ... and not being fearful about it. I mean, we're not going to give away the store, you know, transfer Chicago or something to Damascus or any place else. So, you know, I thought it made sense. I think a good -- a lot of the testimony this week has made sense.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think about Hamilton saying, not only the Iran and Syria part, but also what he said about the surge, too?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, his argument on the surge was that it would delay training, and I think his position with a lot of people's position is that it's really the Iraqis' war to fight, and we just have to keep training them.

I frankly don't agree with that. I think we've been training them as quickly as we can, and we will continue to train them. And one of the reasons we're having the surge is so they won't have to take people away from the training.

The problem is that the troops they are training, some of them are quite good, but many are not, and many are sectarian. The problem is, essentially, that Iraq has become, in people's minds and in their behavior, a divided country. And people want to act out their own sectarian interests and not any national impartial interests.

And in a country where 36,000 people are dying, you know, per year at least, in sectarian violence, it's hard to expect officers, government officials, to say, "I'm above what's going on around me. I'm an impartial Iraqi."

So I do think, you know, we can train all we want, but the training by itself hasn't worked. And that's one of the reasons I think the surge has some validity. And, again, I have my doubts myself, but if you want to have some stability in Baghdad, it strikes me more U.S. forces. And the surge would double the amount of forces in Baghdad.

Senate aims for resolution on Iraq

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Many polls now are indicating that 60 percent of Americans believe that going to war in Iraq was a mistake. And up to 70 percent oppose the increase in troops.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the Democrats are still working on their resolution that would either cap the number of troops or at least say, "Let's don't do it," in other words, a nonbinding resolution. What's your reading of where that is going now?

MARK SHIELDS: In talking to Democrats on the Hill today, they're expecting the Senate to act first, because they believe, as of now, that they'd get up to 10 Republican senators to support a symbolically important, but you're right, nonbinding resolution against it.

JIM LEHRER: And what would it essentially just say...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that's what's going to be...

JIM LEHRER: That's the problem.

MARK SHIELDS: Essentially, I think to -- against the escalation of the war, by the increase in troops. What's happened, Jim, is that many polls now are indicating that 60 percent of Americans believe that going to war in Iraq was a mistake. And up to 70 percent oppose the increase in troops. And that's even higher percentages among Democrats.

And so what you have are Democratic candidates for 2008 all of a sudden scrambling hard left. The old French line about the politician who says, "There go my people, I must get out in front of them and lead them." They're already marching in a different direction. And I think that's exactly what you're seeing on the part of some Democrats.

DAVID BROOKS: My fear is that political consultants are setting Iraq policy for a bunch of these candidates, and they're basing it on realities in Iowa, not on realities in Baghdad.

And, frankly, as many doubts as I have and we all have about the surge, I really don't understand the cap. One thing we know is that the current troop levels are not successful. So maybe you want to increase them; maybe you want to decrease them. But keeping them the same, I just don't understand the argument.

I also don't understand the argument of maybe pulling troops out of Baghdad, allowing a genocide to happen, and sitting there five and 10 miles away while hundreds of thousands of people are being killed. I don't understand that policy.

So get out or fight it, I don't understand this compromise, middle policy which is meant to seem politically tough. It just doesn't seem to accord with the facts on the ground.

JIM LEHRER: What about this nonbinding resolution? Is that going to -- do you think it will have symbolic impact, if no other impact?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if they get 10 Republican senators, I do think that does have an impact. And it would reflect where the country is, by the way, if 70 percent are opposed to this thing.

JIM LEHRER: So you agree with Mark there?

DAVID BROOKS: So I do think it's very hard for the president to sustain what will be a year-long very difficult policy with 70 percent support. I don't care who the president is or, you know, what war it is; that's just politically very difficult.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't think it's simply consultant-driven. I do think that there is a certain frustration in reaching the president.

I mean, the president has been through an election in which his party lost control of both houses of the Congress, largely on the Iraq issue, that his position is not supported publicly by voters. And there's some frustration that's saying, "Let's get his attention." I think that's what this resolution does.

DAVID BROOKS: But we've got now, say, 12,000 troops in Baghdad, why is that sufficient? Why should we cap it at that or cap the whole national presence at 125,000? I don't understand the military logic, the logic for Iraq.

I understand the distrust of the Bush administration. I understand the war weariness. I understand the Washington rationale for it. I just don't understand the Iraqi rationale for it.

Reforms passed in House, Senate

David Brooks
New York Times
I think the lobbying reform, I would give it an A-minus. I think that's a real significant piece of legislation to clean up Washington.

JIM LEHRER: Another issue, David, the 100 hours of the first 100 hours of legislation by the Democratic House is now ended. What kind of grades would you give them?

DAVID BROOKS: It depends on the pieces. Some of the pieces I think were quite good.

I think the lobbying reform, I would give it an A-minus. I think that's a real significant piece of legislation to clean up Washington.

The prescription drug thing, where they give the power to the government the power to negotiate drug prices, I'd give that an F. The Congressional Budget Office concluded it would have no effect on drug prices, and that's an example where it's a lot easier to kvetch from the outside of government than to actually govern from the inside.

So if you go down the list, I think some things they did particularly well, like getting rid of some of the oil subsidies that are going to the oil and gas industry, completely unreliable. They should have cut them deeper than they did, in fact.

Other things, it's just show stuff. It's like the subsidies for college tuition. There's no evidence they'll increase the number of people going to college.

And so some of the stuff quite significant, step forward; other stuff is for show. But, on general, better than the last Congress, you'd have to say that.

JIM LEHRER: I was just wondering how you feel specifically, Mark, on the lobby reform and the ethics stuff, and particularly the Senate passed it yesterday?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the Senate bill passed last night was stronger than either party intended.

JIM LEHRER: There were only two negative votes...

MARK SHIELDS: Only two negative votes. And they felt they had to vote for it. I mean, 45 Republicans had made the mistake of organizing a sort of a mini-filibuster against it and I think really felt the heat and realized that they were out on a limb they didn't want to be.

It did end up winning, you're right, overwhelming support, Jim. The transparency here -- lobbyists have had a habit in the past -- David is aware of this -- not simply $2,100 they can give to your candidacy, but I go around, and I bundle all of these contributions. I get my clients, my associates, and so forth, so then I bring in $100,000 grand to you.

JIM LEHRER: And that's legal.

MARK SHIELDS: And that's been legal, but all of a sudden now...

JIM LEHRER: Because you're the guy who brings it in, even though you...

MARK SHIELDS: I'm getting political credit for it, even though I'm not legally listed as the person.

OK, there's no more bundling. "You have a favorite charity, as a senator." I can't raise money for that any more, in hopes of getting political payoff for it. Everything is out in the open.

It's far more transparent. It's a very, very positive -- I think the 100 days is important, because the Democrats didn't win last November. The Republicans lost. And it was necessary for the Democrats to show that they could do something, that they could run something beyond a two-car funeral.

And I think they did do that. They showed a certain sense of authority, discipline. And I think it's -- I think it's important.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it's fair to say, David, that, for instance, lobby reform and the ethics stuff that was passed overwhelmingly by the Senate, it's already passed the House, most of it, at least, would not have happened in a Republican-controlled Congress?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it didn't.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And I think we've mentioned Jeff Flake, who was a true reformer in the House, said, "Well, we didn't do this, and you guys did this." And the Senate is much stronger than the House bill. I mean, the bundling thing, which Mark talked about, sort of is the key.

The House focused on trips and free meals. I think that's all trivial, frankly. I don't think too many congressman have their vote affected by a free steak, maybe lobster, but not steak. But the bundling actually does matter.

Some of the ear-marked transparency, that stuff really does matter, and that will affect things. And the Republicans didn't do it. They wouldn't have cut the oil subsidies the way the Democrats did. So stuff that a lot of Republicans voted for and agree with didn't get passed.

MARK SHIELDS: That was the most impressive, I think, of the six package of bills that passed. They passed with an average of 62 House Republicans voting with them. So this was an entirely different way of operating than in the past, where you just passed with a straight party-line vote; 62 Republicans on the average crossed the line, to support those Democratic proposals.

Democrats eye 2008

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
It's the first time in 80 years that we've had not a president or a vice president seeking the nomination in either party. And it's a wide-open race.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mark, David used the term "political consultants," some of these people running for president and all of that. I was just looking to see -- we have Bill Richardson today -- there are now, I think, nine that are either people in exploratory committees, Obama, Dodd, Edwards, Kucinich, Vilsack, Biden, Kerry has talked about it, and obviously Hillary Clinton. It's going to be a very crowded field, is it not?

MARK SHIELDS: It is. And it is going to be.

JIM LEHRER: These are all considered serious...

MARK SHIELDS: Serious candidates. I mean, they're serious people, both sides, Jim. It's the first time in 80 years that we've had not a president or a vice president seeking the nomination in either party. And it's a wide-open race.

And we've had two two-term presidents in a row. So people are saying, "Wait a minute. Jeez, if I would have thought about doing it, this is my shot."

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Are you excited by the fact...

DAVID BROOKS: I am.

JIM LEHRER: ... that a lot of people want to be president on the Democratic ticket?

DAVID BROOKS: I am. I'm announcing what a complete loser and wonk I am, but I'm really loving it. I'm looking forward to this race tremendously, spending time in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And a lot of different things are happening. Barack Obama announced on the Internet with no tie on. He's a disaster for the tie industry.

But not only will the substance be very challenging with Iraq and other issues, but the way the campaign is going to run must be very differently, in some good ways, I suspect. Because there are so many, they'll have to be open to us, I think. But in some bad ways, there will be a lot of video cameras around, those little handheld cameras, which are going to tell them -- make them shut up a little.

JIM LEHRER: But the expectation was, oh, it's just going to be Barack Obama now and Hillary Clinton and nobody else matters, but that's wrong, right?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the conventional wisdom has the big three in the Democratic side, with John Edwards...

JIM LEHRER: John Edwards.

MARK SHIELDS: ... and Hillary and Barack Obama. Barack Obama has never had a negative commercial run against him; Hillary Clinton has never been in a primary fight before. So it's going to be tough.

DAVID BROOKS: ... Howard Dean at this stage in the process.

MARK SHIELDS: That's exactly right.

DAVID BROOKS: Somebody will come out of the blue, for sure.

JIM LEHRER: I got you. But we're not, any more right now. Thank you both very much.