House Republicans Walk Out; Major Votes Are Ahead
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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, do you see something new and awful about this heat that erupted in the House of Representatives?
DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: It’s not new, but awful. It’s like a Eugene O’Neill play. They’ve got all these submerged hatreds, and it only takes a little fissure to open them all up. And that’s what happened yesterday.
What was striking about what happened with the ag bill was that, first of all, the parties couldn’t agree what was in the bill, and then they couldn’t agree on how the vote went about the bill. And then when they had this whatever happened, the bit of chaos, and the versions you get depend entirely on what party you’re talking to, immediately the hatred erupted.
And it’s the same hatred that erupted when Tom DeLay and others held the vote open a couple of years ago, and that hatred is still there. And I don’t think the procedures of the House have changed that much. The majority party has changed, but a lot of the strong-arm tactics are sort of the same.
JIM LEHRER: Hatred is a strong word to use. Do you agree with David, who uses that word?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: No, I disagree with David. I think there was a crankiness, there is a crankiness in the House right now, this tension.
JIM LEHRER: Crankiness, not hatred?
MARK SHIELDS: Crankiness. No, it was cranky. They’re tired. They’ve worked long hours, and I think they’re ready to get out of there. And I think the profound difference between what happened last night and what happened with Tom DeLay, keeping the Medicare bill open for three hours, the vote on the floor for three hours in total violation of the House rules, and twisting arms and making threats on the House floor, was that both Steny Hoyer, the majority leader — I thought who handled it very well — and Mike McNulty, who was in the chair, said, “I was wrong. I made a mistake.” I mean, I didn’t hear that in the DeLay era. That was entirely different. Now…
JIM LEHRER: But David’s point is that, whether or not it was an honest mistake or not, that underlying the surface here is tension, and much more than tension.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don’t know — I mean, I thought John Boehner was quite measured and quite restrained. Roy Blunt, the Republican whip, was different. And I think there’s no question that, within the Republican caucus, there are people who are unreconstructed, just as there are people on the Democratic side who are unreconstructed in any dealing with the other side.
And I think Roy Blunt was speaking to and for them, whereas John Boehner, who’s a fierce partisan and a very loyal Republican, you know, was trying to think how he could make the house work.
DAVID BROOKS: Well, they both have Machiavellian reasons to want to make the House appear less angry because the approval ratings of the Congress as a whole, and the House in particular, are sub-Cheney, and they’re pretty terrible. So they both have an incentive to make it seem like they’re both doing their job.
And the big thing that has changed — this has been a long, gradual change — is that members of each party are much less likely to care what people in the other party think of them personally than used to be. And so they’re perfectly happy to shout, “Shame,” or to behave in shameful ways toward people in the other party.
Civility in Congress
JIM LEHRER: Does it matter?
MARK SHIELDS: Why, sure, it does matter.
JIM LEHRER: I mean, other than just...
MARK SHIELDS: It matters because, you know, for one thing, I mean, we saw the retirement announced this week of Ray LaHood. Ray LaHood is a Republican from Peoria, Illinois, who served as Bob Michel's chief of staff, who was Republican leader, was an enormously civilized, genteel man, who has friends on the other side of the aisle, and for whatever reason is leaving.
And the quotient and quota of civility in that institution has depleted seriously by people like David Skaggs, from Colorado, who left, and Ray LaHood, both of whom organized a weekend for families to overcome what David has described, that would get along. They went away for one weekend, maybe even two, but then he tried to rejuvenate it, and couldn't get people to want to do it.
DAVID BROOKS: I actually went to one of those weekends as a facilitator of conversation. And there was -- I tell the story -- there was a woman in the hallway weeping because, in one of the breakout sessions, she'd been insulted so badly that she left the room weeping.
JIM LEHRER: A member of the House of Representatives?
DAVID BROOKS: A spouse. And this was at the civility conference. And so that's a little of the atmosphere that was even carrying over.
JIM LEHRER: Going to substance here now, Speaker Pelosi said in an interview on the program last night that she was proud of the record of the House of Representatives during this session. Does she have a right to be proud? Should she be proud?
DAVID BROOKS: I don't think in particular. I think she's done things to exercise her control over her party, which looked unlikely when this started. I think she's been an effective speaker at organizing the Democrats, and this was a party that seemed riven with Steny Hoyer on one side and her on the other. I think she's been effective in that.
In terms of passing legislation, changing the way the House does business, reducing the number of earmarks, that's certainly not been a success. The number of earmarks has shot upwards. And so I think substantively, it's not been a successful Congress, but politically she's done well, and that's what she's oriented to, 2008.
MARK SHIELDS: I agree with David. I think she's been a far more leader of the -- effective leader of the party than many people thought she was capable of being. I mean, she's cracked heads, and she's kept the Democrats quite united.
Let's be very blunt: The House reflects the country, and the country is riven over the issue of Iraq. There's a consensus that we want to get out, and there's no consensus on how. And that's exactly where the House is. And they've had six separate votes on it. That drives the House; that drives the entire ethos of the House, the entire atmosphere of the House.
I think that -- if you're giving a grade, I'd say it's an incomplete, because, I mean, there are things like children's health, and the student loan reform, as well as the ethics reform I think that are significant, and the energy bill -- it will be tomorrow -- that it will be September, it will be October, but they will -- I think they will be done.
Debate over children's health bill
JIM LEHRER: What do you think on -- what is your view on the children's health bill, the SCHIP thing, David, which got a lot of heat? We've had debates here on the NewsHour about it.
DAVID BROOKS: I confess I don't have an intelligent view on the substance. From first glance, it looks like something is building on a successful program that would extend health benefits to children. If you look at the members of the Senate, the Republicans say who would be unlikely to vote for a Democratic piece of legislation, I think 18 Republicans voted for it. So you have to think the thing has some merit.
What strikes me, interestingly, is the politics of it. Because on the one hand, I was out on the campaign trail with Republicans in New Hampshire, every other question was about health insurance. This really is an issue in even Republican circles.
JIM LEHRER: You mean about no having it and worrying about not having...
DAVID BROOKS: Exactly, one thing or another, whether it's veterans or something, it's a big issue, let alone on the Democratic side. And so that's a big issue. On the other hand, spending restraint is also a huge issue out there. And Democrats have been notably slow to pick fights on spending versus not spending, for that reason.
JIM LEHRER: And the SCHIP issue has got both. It's got health insurance. Also it's got spending issue politically, right?
MARK SHIELDS: Hey, Jim...
JIM LEHRER: Oh, Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: ... there is no political defense from the White House's position on this. This is a Republican program passed in 1997. I mean, Trent Lott, God bless him, the Republican whip in the Senate, talks about this is socialized government-run medicine. This is what they're trying to push.
The last time I checked, every member of Congress and their children is covered by a government-sponsored-and-paid-for health program. I trust in a better conscience they'll all renounce this during the recess and go to private plans.
I mean, what are we talking about? We're talking about the children of the working poor. I mean, somehow there's a charge that the six deadbeats who are 5 years old, these 6-year-olds want to get on and rip off the taxpayer? I mean, I just can't believe it.
They're going to tax? Yes, they're going to tax cigarettes. I mean, unfortunately, cigarettes and the poor people who smoke them have become a punching bag and a fiscal reservoir for the country and for programs. But I don't think the Republicans and the White House -- I mean, the Republicans talk openly about how they can't understand the White House's political point on this.
DAVID BROOKS: I think most Republicans would not accuse 6-year-olds of being deadbeats. I don't think quite that's their argument. This is the open-air argument of what's going to be the biggest domestic argument of the '08 campaign, and the Republican position would be, not that these people shouldn't be covered, it's going to be that we shouldn't do it in a nationalized way, a Britain-Canada style, and we shouldn't ramp up spending that we can't pay for. And they'd say the cigarette tax only pays for a tiny portion. There are other things that aren't paid for, so you've got to pay for it.
And so that's going to be the argument. I'm not sure the argument is going to be over deadbeat 6-year-olds.
New ethics rules
JIM LEHRER: OK, Mark, you mentioned the ethics legislation. Are things really going to change that much because of what happened?
MARK SHIELDS: Sure, they are.
MARK SHIELDS: First of all, Jim, according to the Heritage foundation, the Republican think-tank, very respected, since 1996, Republicans members of Congress have left the House, one out of two has become a registered lobbyist. I mean, the explosion in K Street is just...
JIM LEHRER: K Street is a street in Washington where the lobbyists work and live.
MARK SHIELDS: Lobbyists work, it's just remarkable, OK? And the nexus between lobbyists and money to campaigns -- if David's running, I'm a lobbyist. What I do is I then collect money from my clients, from my associates, and I then bundle that money and bring it to David, and say, "Look, you know, I can only give you $2,300, but here's $45,000."
JIM LEHRER: And, by the way, I represent the...
MARK SHIELDS: Exactly, and I want to have a continuing relationship with you and your wonderful staff. And what this does is it exposes that, it ends the whole entertainment industry in Washington, no tickets, no gifts, no entertainment, no dinners for lobbyists. But the money thing -- for members and staff -- extends to two years the time before a member who leaves can now go out and lobby. And I just think -- I really think it makes an enormous difference. It's going to be disinfectant of sunlight. We're going to know who's bundling...
JIM LEHRER: They can still bundle, but they have explain it.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. That's right.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think?
DAVID BROOKS: I think it makes a difference for the reasons Mark talked to. It's going to be lonely for us at Nationals games, no lobbyists and members of Congress floating around, a lot of beer and hot dogs for us.
MARK SHIELDS: You'll get better seats.
DAVID BROOKS: But the thing a lot of people wish had gone further -- and this is controversial -- is, again, going back to the earmarks and the transparency of the earmarks. A lot of people, like John McCain, think that they should have gone further so that the earmarks, that you couldn't slip it in.
The Democrats claim they did go to some extent. But I really think the earmarks are corrosive. And that's what the lobbyists really care about is, is getting those special provisions slipped in. And until you cut away that, which is the root of all evil...
Impact on earmarks
JIM LEHRER: And the new bill does not in any way ban earmarks. All it does is say, "You've got to say who got the earmarks and why," right?
MARK SHIELDS: And you have to certify that nobody connected with you is benefiting from it financially.
DAVID BROOKS: Right, but there are loopholes about where it gets certified and things like that that a lot of people are complaining about.
JIM LEHRER: So do you think it's going to end earmarks, it's going to...
DAVID BROOKS: Oh, well, it certainly won't end earmarks. Everybody loves earmarks. I mean, I think, if I remember this correctly, when Gingrich came to power in '94, there were 4,000 earmarks in the budget. Ten years later, there were 14,000. And I think the Washington Post reported there were now 34,000. People love earmarks.
JIM LEHRER: Does the raid on Senator Stevens' Alaska home, does that affect the ethics climate and passable legislation...
MARK SHIELDS: It guaranteed Senate passage. I mean, if you're a Republican, you can't say, "Oh, boy, this is political." Here they are, the FBI, going in and invading and examining the home of the senior Republican senator. It absolutely guaranteed it.
And I think what we're seeing is that Alaska is, from top to bottom -- the political environment there is being examined and will be scrutinized.
JIM LEHRER: A climate change as a result of this?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. But, again, the Ted Stevens, what he did, whether he did it or not, that's not what the cause of all this lobby reform legislation. It wasn't the stuff that people were trying to hide that caused this legislation. It was the stuff that was happening in the open day on restaurants on K Street.
And so, you know, what he did, may have done, may be illegal, but the stuff that was going on every day is what we needed to address. And that's what the legislation was about.
JIM LEHRER: But I'm just thinking about whether or not it's tied directly to this. Does it have an indirect influence on the way people...
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think when you've got money in freezers, houses being rebuilt, it all feeds in. Duke Cunningham, we've had many cases of this.
JIM LEHRER: OK, David, Mark, thank you both very much.