These are days of such epic cynicism in the Capitol that one half expects statues of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Robert M. LaFollette and other great legislators to crawl off their pedestals and slink out on the city in shame over the collapse of the last pretenses of noble governance.
It is not just that Congress has again failed to advance even the mild political reforms contained in the McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bills. It is that the people responsible for that failure actually believe -- if they spin hard enought -- they can avoid responsibility.
Witness the surreal attempt by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to blame House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., for the scuttling this week of campaign finance reform. Like the schoolyard bully who provokes a fight, then points to his victim and yells, "He started it," Hastert was practicing the politics of confuse and conquer -- claiming that Gephardt had blocked action on the Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform bill in order to keep the issue alive for Democrats running in 2002.
At a packed Capitol Hill press conference following a week of confusion, chaos and long knives, Hastert grumbled of Gephardt: "He doesn’t want results. He’d rather have the issue for a campaign issue."
Hastert's line went over well with the appartchiks at the out-Foxed News Network. But it'll be a tough sell with fourth grade civics students. Hastert is, after all, the Speaker of the House, the heir to the gavel once held by Sam Rayburn, Tip O'Neill and Newt Gingrich. As such, he's the man in the position to wreck reform, and so he did with maneuvers cynical enough to cause Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays to declare in the thick of the battle: "If this bill goes down, it won't be the fault of [Gephardt] or the Democratic Party. It will be the fault of the [Republican] Party."
Shays was the rare Republican courageous enough -- or, perhaps, considering the vindictive nature of the Republican leadership, crazy enough -- to point out the reality of what happened in the House. In doing so, Shays cut through the thicket of lies and manufactured confusion produced by the Speaker and his puppet master, House Whip Tom DeLay, D-Tex., the fiercely right-wing House Whip for whom Hastert serves as a frequently hapless front man.
The House's shame stood in marked contrast to the spring Senate debate on the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill, which will be remembered as one of the rare shining moments in this Congress.
What made Senate debate on McCain-Feingold so remarkable was the fact that it was a debate. Republicans who then controlled the Senate were forced by one of their own, Arizona Sen. John McCain, to permit an honest discourse on the measure. What resulted was a freewheeling, frequently unwieldy exercise in old-fashioned governing, the bill was actually reshaped -- in some ways strengthened, in other ways weakened -- as amendments were proposed, alliances were formed and shattered and, finally, a rough compromise emerged. That compromise was finally put to a vote and won sufficient support to stamp a Senate seal of approval on a meaningful overhaul of campaign finance laws.
What made the House's handling of Shays-Meehan -- the little brother of McCain-Feingold -- so disappointing was the fact that there was no debate. Hastert, DeLay and other House GOP leaders, who had sworn blood oaths to stop the bill, crafted what might be referred to as Republican Rules of Disorder. Their proposed procedures for debating Shays-Meehan were designed to prevent Shays and his Democratic co-sponsor, Martin Meehan, D-Mass., from crafting a compromise that paralleled McCain-Feingold to clear the House hurdle. The new rules, forged with "the hammer" of Tom DeLay and his supremely cynical whip team, were were rejected 228 to 203 -- as Shays and 18 other Republicans broke with their leadership to side with Gephardt’s Democrats. What should have been a victory for reform turned sour, however, as Hastert declared that, in the absence of rules for debate, Shays-Meehan would be consigned to the backburner -- perhaps even to the dustbin of history.
All that was left to do was to place the blame for the dirty deed. Hastert dutifully pointed to Gephardt -- despite the fact that the New York Times, the Washington Post and other publications carried lengthy articles this week noting the Democratic leader's determined efforts to win passage of Shays-Meehan. Longtime critics of Gephardt argued that the Missourian, who has never been seen as a campaign finance reform champion, had finally come around to a genuine belief in the necessity of reform.
That was evident even as Hastert was pitching the big lie.
While the Speaker was placing blame for killing campaign finance reform, Gephardt was seeking to keep the initiative alive. It was the Democratic leader who was suggesting at week's end that reformers use the House's "discharge petition" procedure -- under which a majority of House members can force action on bottled-up legislation -- to gain a floor vote on Shays-Meehan. When Hastert signs the discharge petition, believe him. Until then, recognize him for what he is -- the most cynical man in a city with no shortage of contenders for the title.
© 2001 The Nation Company, L.P.