Enthusiasm for old-fashioned dirty politics - including back-room deals, vote-buying with earmarks and log-rolling - is making a comeback. Shocking as that might be for folks who thought the banishment of earmarks a few years ago marked the end of congressional corruption, what is also unexpected is who are the most vocal advocates of the revival. As the Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison pointed out Friday, the push comes from liberals like the Atlantic's Jonathan Rauch and Slate's Matthew Yglesias.
The root problem, according to these new enthusiasts for congressional graft, is political gridlock. Here's how Yglesias put it: “Nothing's perfect, but today's Congress is remarkably free of corruption -- whether of the formally illegal kind or just unseemly horse trading. And that is precisely the problem. It turns out that a Congress full of highly principled men and women, fired-up by genuine idealism about America's future, is a place where nothing gets done.” A little honest graft, you see, is what makes the wheels of democracy turn.
Similarly, the Tea Party, with its over-bearing insistence on open votes for and against clear-cut alternatives advanced by polarized camps led by ideological ninjas has left Congress weakened, according to Rauch: “Public ultimatums supplanted private negotiations, games of chicken replaced mutual back-scratching, and bumptious Republican House members took to dictating terms to their putative leadership."
But hope was reborn when exhausted congressional leaders resolved the October 2013 government shutdown by negotiating a back-room deal that produced “a trillion-dollar spending bill loaded with incentives for each side” that “sailed through Congress in January,” Rauch said. Accompanied no doubt by a chorus of heavenly hosannas led by Henry Clay, Joe Cannon and Sam Rayburn.
The problem with this rendering, however, is that it is a fairy tale dressed up as domestic realpolitik. The success of the anti-earmarking crusade was a step forward, but by no means did it end back-room dealing, horse-trading and legalized extortion of campaign money by legislators.
As Allison pointed out, nothing stopped the previous Congress from extending $280 billion worth of tax “extenders” - i.e. credits, exemptions and deductions, most benefitting special interests. Nor did the previous Congress have any difficulty renewing a perennial example of special-interest spending, the Export-Import Bank, which annually funnels billions to Boeing, General Electric and other Fortune 500 outfits.
In addition, pinning the blame for polarized politics solely on the Tea Party is nothing more than a crude attempt to redirect attention away from Washington's two masters of gridlock, Harry Reid and Barack Obama. House Republicans have passed dozens of major bills since 2011, only to see them contemptuously ignored by Reid and Senate Democrats. Compounding that problem is Reid's refusal to give Senate Republicans the opportunity to offer amendments to legislation, and Obama's persistent refusal to bargain in good faith with House Republicans. America needs leaders from both sides who will seek honest compromise on the basis of firm conviction and a desire to serve the public interest, not because it fattens campaign treasuries and brings home the bacon.