Taking On His Party

Taking On His Party

One of the things that has annoyed me during this campaign is how easy it has been for candidates to simply make things up about one another’s records, even when they are talking about topics that are relatively easy to check. Last spring, people kept saying that Obama had no real accomplishments in the Senate, even though that was not true. More recently, McCain has said that Obama has not reached across the aisle to work with Republicans. That’s not true either: he has worked with Dick Lugar on securing Russian loose nukes and small arms, and on avian flu, with Tom Coburn on ethics reform and openness in government, and so on.

The latest charge is this:

“Sen. Obama has never taken on his leaders of his party on a single issue.”

Oh, really?

“Part of the Senate’s ethics reform bill deals with earmarks — lawmakers’ often abused practice of inserting items in legislation to direct funds to special interests (a la Duke Cunningham). According to current rules, lawmakers can attach earmarks anonymously, a state of affairs inviting abuse. Reform efforts have sought to change that. Republicans and good government types have criticized Reid’s version of earmark reform legislation, which is weaker than the version passed by House Democrats, saying that it doesn’t go near far enough in terms of disclosure.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) offered an amendment today that mirrored the tougher legislation passed by House Democrats.

According to Craig Holman of Public Citizen, Reid’s version, if it had been applied to earmarks as part of legislation passed last year, would have disclosed the sponsor of only approximately 500 earmarks. DeMint’s amendment would have forced sponsors to be known of roughly 12,000. (…)

But Democrats sought to block DeMint’s amendment, with an effort led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). They failed, due mostly to nine Democrats, including Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and freshmen Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Jim Webb (D-VA), who crossed the aisle to vote with the Republicans, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT).”

And guess what? It worked. CQ (quoted by TPMMuckraker):

“After losing a critical floor vote Thursday and scrambling in vain to reverse the decision, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., found the spirit of bipartisan compromise more to his liking Friday morning.

Reid offered an olive branch to Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., agreeing to embrace his amendment to a pending ethics and lobbying overhaul (S 1) with some modifications. DeMint’s amendment, which Democratic leaders tried but failed to kill on Thursday, would expand the definition of member earmarks that would be subject to new disclosure rules.”

More generally: Obama was the Senate’s point person for ethics reform. Ethics reform is never a particularly good way to endear yourself to your colleagues, since working for it consists in large part of trying to convince them to give up various goodies. For some of the ethics reform debate, Obama had the Senate leadership behind him. But he was working for stronger legislation than they wanted. Sometimes he won, as in the case just described. Sometimes he lost: he was pushing for an independent commission to oversee Congressional ethics cases, and lost.

But the idea that he never took on his party’s leadership is just wrong.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation