A Congress That Can Say 'No!'
Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett, one of the few members of the US House with a steady track record of keeping his head at chaotic moments, was not impressed by the fact that the Bush White House and Democratic and Republican congressional leaders had come together to support a $700 billion bailout plan for Wall Street's worst players.
"Like the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, this bill is fueled by fear and haste," declared Doggett, a former jurist who has a habit of keeping his head when others in the House fail to do so.
What was different this time was that the populist Democrat with a record of casting votes that do not come to embarrass him, was on the winning side of the House division.
Unlike 2001, when the White House and congressional leaders forged a bipartisan combination to pass the Patriot Act; unlike 2002, when the powerful players in the executive and legislative branches crossed party lines to form a united front to give President Bush unprecedented war-making powers, the fight over the bailout plan that was backed by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate finished differently.
In one of the last monumental votes of an era of legislative dysfunction, courage and prudence prevailed over fear and haste.
The coalition that rejected the bailout bill by a 228-205 vote Monday was truly bipartisan.
It was not made up of powerbrokers coalescing to evoke the elite consensus that once led another Texas populist-- Jim Hightower-- to suggest that "America does not need a third party. We need a second party."
The 95 (mostly) liberal Democrats and the133 (mostly) conservative Republicans who blocked the rush on Monday to pass the bailout bill were the dissenters of both parties-- the outriders from the established order.
They do not usually unite--although it has happened a few times in recent years on trade votes. And they do not usually hold together in the face of whipping--not to mention outright bribery--by party leaders.
But this bailout bill was so poorly crafted and so misguided in its priorities that it welded together dissident Democrats and renegade Republicans to say "no."
The debate was remarkable. Sometimes liberals sounded like conservatives. Sometimes free-marketeers came off as radicals. (Texan John Culberson mustered a populism few thought the conservative Republican had in him when he declared, "This legislation is giving us a choice between bankrupting our children and bankrupting a few of these big financial institutions on Wall Street that made bad decisions.")
Ultimately, however, it was the word "no"--and the ability to utter it in the form of a roll-call vote--that united all sides. That and the threat of an election where voters may not be inclined to reward members of the House and Senate who seem to be more concerned about Wall Street than Main Street.
Few of the free-market purists on the Republican side shared the objection of Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair Joe Baca, D-California, who said of the bailout bill, "There's nothing in here that guarantees new jobs, nothing that guarantees salary increases. And that's a huge problem."
Few of the progressive Democrats who opposed the measure agreed with Michigan Republican Thaddeus McCotter, who worried that the government's entry into the marketplace might limit what he vaguely referred to as "economic freedom" - but what sounded more like survival-of-the-fittest capitalism.
Yet, on Monday, urged on by two of the Capitol's more consistent dissenters, California Republican Darrell Issa and Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur--who developed something of a rogue coalition to whip the "no" votes--the outsiders briefly became the bosses of Capitol Hill.
It may only have been one vote on one day. And the powers that be will scramble to reestablish their position.
But Monday's rejection of a bad bailout offered an indication of the republic that might be - if members of Congress voted with the courage and the conscience that the founders intended when they imagined a chamber that was to be "the people's House."
Copyright © 2008 The Nation