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Wednesday, July 19, 2006


The Ex-Speakers Speak With One Voice on the Sorry State of Congress

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 13, 2006; Page A02
(C) Washington Post Corporation

Washington Sketch
A national political reporter for the Post, Milbank writes Washington Sketch, an observational column about political theater in the White House, Congress and elsewhere in the capital. He covered the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns and President Bush's first term. Before coming to the Post as a Style political writer in 2000, he covered the Clinton White House for the New Republic and Congress for the Wall Street Journal.

There are not too many issues that would give common cause to Thomas Foley and Newt Gingrich. Yet there they were, sitting next to each other yesterday: the last Democratic speaker of the House and the man who ousted him to become the first Republican speaker of the House in half a century.

And they were in perfect harmony as they kicked around the notion of "How Congress Is Failing America."

Thomas Foley: "It's the obligation of Congress to decide how far they want executive power to be exercised."

"Congress really has to think about how fundamentally wrong the current system is," Gingrich said of his former colleagues. When facing crises at home and abroad, he said, "it's important to have an informed, independent legislative branch coming to grips with this reality and not sitting around waiting for 'presidential leadership.' "

Foley nodded at Gingrich's points and applauded when he finished. "If I didn't have a somewhat long history with Newt Gingrich," the Democrat said, "I would listen to what he had said if he were a candidate for Congress and say, 'I think I'll vote for this guy.' I think he's absolutely dead right in his diagnosis of what's happening to this country and to the Congress."

The old foes had come to the American Enterprise Institute at the request of two of the capital's most ubiquitous pundits, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, to launch "The Broken Branch," the scholars' new book about Congress.

For nearly two hours, Gingrich, Foley and their bespectacled hosts spoke with one voice about the lowly state Congress now finds itself in -- and the lack of easy solutions.

The men had no trouble identifying the symptoms: a collapse of committee deliberations, the demise of oversight of the executive branch, the loss of the "regular order" of rules for debate and legislation, a runaway spending process, and a shrinking legislative calendar. The causes were also not difficult to find: gerrymandered districts, travel and fundraising needs keeping lawmakers away from Washington, the loss of centrists in both parties, quickening news cycles and the reliance on lobbyist-raised cash.

"Flatly, in the 36-plus years we've been here, we've never seen it this bad," Ornstein said.

Said Mann: "If you were to look back on history for a comparable period, it might well be the late 19th century." Foley and Gingrich nodded.

Gingrich was even more dire. "I believe we are drifting into a cycle where the challenges we face are a greater mismatch with our potential solutions than any time since April of 1861," he said.

Foley struggled to keep pace. "If the Congress fails, democracy fails," he said.

It was heartwarming to see the former speakers removing the knives they had stuck in each other's backs. Though they serve on a Pentagon advisory board together, it was their first joint public appearance other than a congressional hearing. They shook hands cordially, at times reached to pat each other on the shoulder as they spoke, and cited each other's points with phrases such as "I agree with Newt on this" and "Speaker Foley will not disagree with me" and "As Newt says."

Gingrich, 63, cited a favorite Foley story he heard years ago, and Foley, 77, applauded Gingrich when he finished. Foley let only one scowl cross his face, when the moderator mentioned the Contract With America, the manifesto of the Republican Revolution of 1994. Each man confessed how his own leadership contributed to the problem.

In a sense, both former speakers share a need for rehab after highly public falls, Foley to an unknown challenger in his Washington state district and Gingrich at the hands of colleagues after poor election results and an earlier ethics flap. "Nothing gets one referred to as a great leader of an institution more than a willingness to show up on a panel," Gingrich quipped, "and one can gradually rebuild almost any reputation if you pander enough to the authorities that write columns and show up on TV."

The two were also united in their inability to offer a "silver bullet," as Foley put it. Their solutions were incremental: Restore committee power to write laws, ban fundraising in Washington, abolish lawmakers' political action committees, end spending "earmarks" and enforce the rules that guide the legislative process.

But a real change, they concurred, would come only with fresh blood. "The correct answer," Gingrich said, "is for the American people to just start firing people. This is what the Progressive movement was."

Until then -- and there are few signs of a mass movement building -- the legislative branch will have to heal itself. Gingrich suggested Congress rediscover its power to supervise the administration. "The failure to do effective, aggressive oversight disserves the country and disserves the president," he argued.

Foley encouraged Congress to stop whining about executive power and push back. "There's no mystery about Dick Cheney's position," he said. "It's the obligation of Congress to decide how far they want executive power to be exercised."

And, while waiting for a voter backlash to clean up Congress, Gingrich had some pithy advice for lawmakers who, in the current wave of scandal and personal enrichment on Capitol Hill, have confused the public interest with their personal interests. Said the former speaker: "My answer to them is 'Go home.' "

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