Sunday, June 04, 2006

Congressional Leadership

The National Journal has a story this week indicating that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the likely new Majority Leader should the Republicans retain control of the Senate this fall.

McConnell is a fighter who has not been afraid to speak his mind. McConnell was one of the leaders in challenging campaign finance reform. If the National Journal story is to be believed, McConnell is also savvy and subtle when it comes to politics.

But after checking and rechecking with his Senate colleagues to see where they stood, McConnell concluded that the vote would be a 50-50 tie.

McConnell didn't hesitate to notify the White House that Vice President Cheney, as Senate president, would have to cast the tiebreaker. Never mind that Cheney was halfway around the world in Afghanistan at a delicate moment in U.S. foreign policy. And never mind that by the time the vice president returned to Washington, his vote might not even be required, because a senator or two might switch positions.

In the end, McConnell's vote count was dead-on. The Senate approved the fiscal 2006 budget reconciliation conference report, 51-50, on December 21. For the seventh time during his vice presidency, Cheney provided the decisive Senate vote.

Other lawmakers might try to grab some glory for pulling off such a feat. Step out before the klieg lights. Enjoy the spotlight. But the low-key McConnell did none of those things. He saw that episode as simply part of his job as the No. 2 to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

I suspect that the Senate will be much more pleasing to conservatives if McConnell is in charge and not just because of his political savvy. McConnell has a power base, something that Frist (and Denny Hastert over on the House side) never seemed to really have. It takes power in the hands of the leadership to knock heads together and to force the individual members of Congress to work for a higher purpose (rather than just meet their immediate needs).

Congress has been a disaster for the last few years. The Republican leadership seemed incapable of holding the members together to vote on important issues. The Senate leadership has been a major embarrassment...they have a 10 vote margin and the let the Dems set the agenda.

It seems to me that Frist and Hastert were consensus choices for their leadership positions. While I have no first hand knowledge of the situations behind their rise to power, I have my suspicions.

Let's go back to post-election 1998. Newt Gingrich announces that he is not going to continue on as Speaker and Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was next in line. Livingston IS a force to be reckoned with, yet his prospective Speaker-ship lasted only a few days. Word of a potential scandal involving marital infidelity caused him to announce his resignation from Congress. He went on to found the Livingston Group, one of the most powerful lobbying shops on Capitol Hill (the offices were on the same floor of the building I worked in between 2000 and 2002 and I became friends with Bob). The Republicans in the House then picked Hastert as the new Speaker.

Certain senior members in the House (leadership members and chairman of major committees) act as political "barons" who butt heads and jockey for power. A strong Speaker can keep these barons in line and prevent them from running amok. Livingston's departure left a vacuum at the top...and none of the remaining barons were powerful enough to seize the top position for themselves. So, they agreed to allow a non-entity like Hastert to become Speaker. Very quickly, the barons learned that they liked having a weak Speaker at the top...they could manage their own affairs and pursue their own agendas without interference.

All this has been a disaster for the GOP. Self interest of the members now reigns supreme. "To hell with the agenda, I have to get myself re-elected!" Well, to the leadership, I say, "To hell with YOU!"


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