Back when I was in the Senate, I would sometimes hear my Republican friends compare former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas), claiming that each was a master at influencing his colleaguesoften through intimidation. There is some truth to that comparison. DeLay was nicknamed the Hammer for a reason, and my older Senate colleagues told me that there were few experiences more frightening than having the towering LBJ hulk over them to press his case.
When I was majority leader, intimidation wasnt my style. But Johnson was still an inspiration to me, for reasons that my GOP friends miss when they compare Johnson to DeLay. While DeLay and Johnson may have used similar means,their ends could not have been more different. Oneused his power to advance special interests, the other, the national interest.
DeLays formative experience was as an exterminator who came to resentgovernment regulations. Johnsons was as a public schoolteacher who came to understand governments indispensable role. In 1928 and 1929, Johnson taught in Cotulla, Texas, one of the countrys poorest school districts. Nearly 40 years later, he spoke about the children at that school:It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help people like them all over this country. But now I have that chanceand Ill let you in on a secretI mean to use it.
Republicans came to power saying that government cannot do anything, and they set about to prove it. Despite a stated agenda of smaller government, lower taxes, and strong national defense, Republicans have left in their wake a larger government, a weakened national defense, and a higher share of the tax burden falling upon a larger share of the people.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been running scared from our raison detrewhich is effective government. Now, I dont expect Democrats to be plastering the slogan effective government on bumper stickers, but I do hope to see Democrats demonstratingthrough legislative action and a restoration of the Constitutions demand for a balance of powersthat competent, well-administered government can have a positive impact on peoples lives.
For this to happen, Congress must regain its status as a co-equal branch of government. That doesnt mean that we embrace the politics of retribution, but it does mean acting as a counterweight to the president. This is what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Only then can Democrats demonstrate effective government in action, and only then will faith in the idea of effective government be restored.
It wont be easy. Any majority we hold will be a slim one. While its members may share the label Democrat, they may share little else. Leading such a slim majority (something I had to do from 2001 to 2002) requires that Democrats follow two key strategies. The first is to plow ahead in the unsexy but vitally important area of oversight. The second is to make progress on issues that enjoy unified Democratic support.
First, the oversight. A Democratic Congress can simultaneously satisfy its base and make a claim on being strong on national security by completing the long-delayed investigation into the politicization of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. Similarly, Congress can examineand report to the American people in an unclassified formhow new national-security powers granted to the president are being used, and what impact they have on Americas standing in the world. We can also examine corruption in government contracting. Finally, we can satisfy those of us who want real reform by stopping the explosion of earmarks and returning to transparent appropriation of the American peoples tax dollars.
Of course, fixing how Congress runs is not enough. Democrats also have to fix what Congress produces. It is here that Congress can show that good policy can be synonymous with good politics, and pursue a couple of well-chosen policy goals that enjoy Democratic unity and national support.
When Democrats assumed our one-seat majority in the Senate in 2001, the first bill we enacted was the Patients Bill of Rights. We followed that up with campaign-finance reform. It was the kind of action that the American people expected of Congress, and President Bush was forced to sign it (with little enthusiasm and less fanfare). Then with the Farm Bill. Same again. The American people got to see the difference between what happens under Democratic leadership and what happens under Republican leadership.
Today, Democrats need to present that contrast even more clearly, and nowhere are we better poised to do so than on energy. We are currently running the largest trade deficit in American history, and we spend half of that deficit to import oil. We are borrowing money from our economic competitors to subsidize some of the very people we are asking our soldiers to fight. Democrats can pass a progressive energy bill that weans us from our dependence on foreign oil, fights global warming, and forces the president to make a choice: the Middle East or the Midwest.
But there are many other areas of similar importance. Democrats can press to enact the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, leaving Republicans with a choice: work with Democrats or cede the label of the party of security. On the domestic front, Democrats are unified on the need for a minimum-wage increase and the need for Medicare to negotiate lower prescription-drug prices. The choices for Republicans mount. More tax breaks for the guy who sits in the corner office, or a modest raise for the person who cleans it? More profits for the pharmaceutical companies, or more help for the senior citizens who depend on their products?
Even within a slim majority, Democrats can clearly demonstrate a Democratic difference. By doing so, they can show government to be a force for progress that people will feel in their lives. Certainly, a Democratic leader as forceful as Tom DeLay might be useful to a party once in a while, but only if the person doesnt seek power for its own sake. That was the problem with Tom DeLay. Its also the problem with todays GOP. Leader Reid and Speaker Pelosi, by contrast, know LBJs secret about using power for the greater good. And, like him, they mean to use it.