Believe it or not, these are some of the best days Democrats have had on Capitol Hill in years. Considering the drubbing they took last November, they are having more fun than they have any right to expect. This may be out of necessity. They have stopped pretending that they are only temporarily in the minority, and they have begun acting like the opposition, at least on Social Security and ethics.
A lot of Democrats spent the last 10 years pretending they were people of ideas and influence whose jobs it was to convert those ideas and that influence into legislation -- except that the last major piece of legislation advanced by Democrats was the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform, which, ironically, is most closely associated with one of its main Republican co-sponsors, John McCain. Now, forced by their increasingly dire circumstances, Democrats have embraced their opposition status and begun to vigorously oppose (with minimal hand-wringing) about the need to present positive alternatives. They are even threatening their own shutdown if Senate Republicans try to change the filibuster rules for judicial nominations.
"We are just going to beat the crap out of them," says one Democratic aide, who was talking about Social Security but managed to describe the Democrats' general disposition.
The Republican agenda, meanwhile, seems to be chugging along almost completely unfettered, with the recent passage of many long-stalled GOP initiatives like bankruptcy reform and class-action reform. And there is an increasing likelihood that a bill to allow oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) may pass this year.
But largely because of Social Security, a gift from the House of Bush, these are not such dark days for the Democrats. The president's proposal to privatize part of the retirement system grows more unpopular each week, and that has put Republicans on the defensive. In turn, the Democrats' rapid response has made them seem resolute and determined -- maybe even principled.
Finally, Democrats appear to believe in something they're willing to fight for. But it is the other, nastier fight where they seem to be going for the knockout.
Ethics debates are always a touchy subject on Capitol Hill. There is a MAD (mutually assured destruction) quality to them the can scare even the most reckless and partisan of members; an ethics complaint is a widely available weapon that can easily be turned against those who bring them. But in the current debates over Tom DeLay's ethics troubles, Democrats have stopped holding back. Partly it's because there's blood in the water, but it's also because a lot of people are playing a new game now: If you can't legislate, agitate.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who once observed an ethics détente with the Republicans, took questions about the majority leader to the floor this week, abandoning the pretense that the DeLay debate was going to be about individual House members expressing concern about the integrity and reputation of the institution. Now, clearly, it's war, and Pelosi's the general leading the charge. On the same day that DeLay was forced to address what Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer referred to as an "avalanche of allegations" against him, Pelosi introduced a resolution that began:
"Whereas, the Constitution of the United States authorizes the House of Representatives to determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member."
Expulsion? Truce way over!
As was predictable, however, the resolution failed when it was tabled by a 223-to-194 vote. But at this point there's no holding Pelosi back.
"Today," she bellowed at the top of her lungs through a press release, "the Republicans dealt a blow to the ethical standards of the House by voting to declare their allegiance to the ethical standards of Tom DeLay … . This resolution, however, was not about the Majority Leader personally, but about the ethics rules that have been gutted to protect him."
Whenever you say it's not about Tom DeLay, it's about Tom DeLay.
In his conference room this week, DeLay, looking fully recovered from his electroshock treatment last week for his occasionally irregular heartbeat, said his problems were not ethical but political, and that he was going to treat them as such.
"In recent years, there has been a growing frenzy surrounding the Ethics Committee, with Democrats and their allies attempting to use it as a partisan tool for partisan ends," he said. "I see it for what it is; it is very unfortunate that the Democrats have no agenda and they have to tear down the House to gain power."
The next day, Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, used his floor privileges to talk not about the budget or Social Security but about ethics and DeLay. "Mr. Speaker," he said, "the integrity of this people's House supersedes the interests of any individual member who is privileged to serve here, of either political party."
The DeLay attacks seemed almost as coordinated as the Social Security rebuttal effort. Even John Kerry, in a speech opposing the GOP's decision to insert ANWR drilling language into the non-filibusterable budget, managed to invoke DeLay:
"Because the votes don't exist to do this through the proper channels of the Senate," Kerry said, "there is a new process being put in place to do this on the budget. It's symptomatic of what's happening in the United States Congress. The Ethics Committee in the House is opportune (sic) to change the rules for Congressman Tom DeLay."
Ethics complaints are personal. They provoke a kind of ugliness that can wash over everything in the Capitol. Newt Gingrich, who knew a thing or two about ethics complaints -- lodging them and defending against them -- once shrugged off the nasty state of play in mid-'90s Washington as a historical fact of life.
"I'm a historian," he said then. "[Thomas] Jefferson and [Alexander] Hamilton each subsidized papers to smear the other. Trying to lead America has always been a tough business, and even [George] Washington occasionally got hit."
All of a sudden, Democrats seem to be playing full contact.
Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. His column about politics appears each week in the Prospect's online edition.
By Terence Samuel
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved