Fixing Congress by Restoring Conservatism

George Will has a withering assessment of the congressional ethics scandal. While he blames careerism and leviathan government as the driving forces, he does not spare the Republican party.

Before evolution produced creatures of our perfection, there was a three-ton dinosaur, the stegosaurus, so neurologically sluggish that when its tail was injured, significant time elapsed before news of the trauma meandered up its long spine to its walnut-size brain. This primitive beast, not the dignified elephant, should be the symbol of House Republicans.

Yes, one should not taint all of them because of the behavior of most of them. Why, perhaps half a dozen of the 231 Republican representatives authored none of the transportation bill’s 6,371 earmarks — pork projects. And now among House Republicans there are Darwinian stirrings, prompted by concerns about survival.

In Washington, such concerns often are confused with and substitute for moral epiphanies. Tom DeLay will not return as leader of House Republicans, whose new fastidiousness is not yet so severe that they are impatient with Ohio Rep. Bob Ney’s continuing chairmanship of the Committee on House Administration, in spite of services he rendered to Jack Abramoff. Ney has explained, by way of extenuation — yes, extenuation — that he did not know what he was doing.

And Tom DeLay will, if he escapes prison, return to a powerful post on the Appropriations Committee and, one suspects, a prominent behind-the-scenes role in the leadership.

Will believes that the vast regulatory power of government and a $2.6 trillion budget is the backdrop that makes this all possible. As a consequence,

The national pastime is no longer baseball, it is rent-seeking — bending public power for private advantage. There are two reasons why rent-seeking has become so lurid, but those reasons for today’s dystopian politics are reasons why most suggested cures seem utopian.

But, he points out, Republicans got elected by promising to reverse this trend. They have, to say the least, not done so.

Liberals practice “K Street liberalism” with an easy conscience because they believe government should do as much as possible for as many interests as possible. But “K Street conservatism” compounds unseemliness with hypocrisy. Until the Bush administration, with its incontinent spending, unleashed an especially conscienceless Republican control of both political branches, conservatives pretended to believe in limited government. The past five years, during which the number of registered lobbyists more than doubled, have proved that, for some Republicans, conservative virtue was merely the absence of opportunity for vice.

Ouch. But undeniably true. His main reform plank is predictable:

A surgical reform would be congressional term limits, which would end careerism, thereby changing the incentives for entering politics and for becoming, when in office, an enabler of rent-seekers in exchange for their help in retaining office forever. The movement for limits — a Madisonian reform to alter the dynamic of interestedness that inevitably animates politics — was surging until four months after Republicans took control of the House. In May 1995 the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that congressional terms could not be limited by states’ statutes. Hence a constitutional amendment is necessary. Hence Congress must initiate limits on itself. That will never happen.

Although bribery already is a crime and lobbying is constitutionally protected (the First Amendment right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances”), a few institutional reforms milder than term limits might be useful. But none will be more than marginally important, absent the philosophical renewal of conservatism. To which end, whom should Republicans elect?

Roy Blunt of Missouri, the man who was selected, not elected, to replace DeLay, is a champion of earmarks as a form of constituent service. If, as one member says, “the problem is not just DeLay but ‘DeLay Inc.’ ” Blunt is not the solution. So far — the field may expand — the choice for majority leader is between Blunt and John Boehner of Ohio. A salient fact: In 15 years in the House, Boehner has never put an earmark in an appropriations or transportation bill.

One wonders if the dinosaur will understand the seriousness of the problem. While there’s a sense in which the canard with with the Republican faithful comfort ourselves–that it would be even worse if the Democrats ran Congress–is true, it’s also the case that it does not much seem as if Republicans run Congress, either. Indeed, with few exceptions, the Democrats could dust off the Contract With America and run on it this year.



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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. M1EK says:

    The theory that things would be even worse with a Democratic congress is not borne out by the facts – Bush might, in fact, have the guts to dust off his veto pen if that were the case.

  2. Rick DeMent says:

    Historically divided government makes for smaller government.

  3. DaveD says:

    The American public seems to favor smaller government and fiscal responsibility in theory. In practice they do not want to make the sacrifices necessary for this to occur. Therefore, I think Rick’s comment above about divided government is the only viable solution to achieving moderation.

  4. LJD says:

    Divided government makes for a big, expensive, bickering contest that achieves nothing. They waste tax dollars to stroke their egos…
    How about coming up with some candidates with ideas and solutions, rather than a history of economic success, money in the bank, or powerful friends. Of course their constituents feel “entitled”, they are following their leaders.

  5. McGehee says:

    Divided gtovernment sounds good in theory, but the last time Democrats got back control of just one house of Congress — after Jim Jeffords’ switch in 2001 — the President’s party actually gained seats in both houses in a midterm election.

    Obviously if we’re to have divided government, the Democrats can’t participate.

  6. cs says:

    We have separation of powers specifically to allow and foster a divided government. Concentrating power seems to make for efficiencies but that hasn’t borne out in the last five years.

    “How about coming up with some candidates with ideas and solutions …”

    How about holding the officeholders accountable? They are no better than we are, and it seems they aren’t very good.

  7. jimbo says:

    Both redistricting reform and term limits are great ideas that probably ain’t gonna happen, although there might be a hope that a court could see its way to finding gerrymandering as a violation of equal protection. It is up to the voters to bring in divided government.

  8. LJD says:

    How about holding the officeholders accountable?

    Uh Oh, time for another inquisition…

    You don’t think we should perhaps choose more carefully, BEFORE there’s a need for an investigation?

  9. McGehee says:

    LJD, I’m pretty sure he meant by political means.

    And even after you elect the best available candidate, sometimes you need to go stand on his desk and watch him to make sure he does right.