In June 2004, when then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was trying to put the best face on Democratic intentions should they win a majority in the 2006 election, she issued a “minority bill of rights.” It promised that Democrats would not treat Republicans as Republicans often treated Democrats should voters put Democrats back in charge of the House.
Pelosi promised a “bipartisan administration of the House” and a return to a more “regular democratic order for legislation.” That meant bills would be considered under a procedure that “allows open, full and fair debate consisting of a full amendment process that grants the minority the right to offer its alternatives, including a substitute.” Pelosi promised, “Members should have at least 24 hours to examine bills and conference report text prior to floor consideration. Rules governing floor debate must be reported before 10 p.m. for a bill to be considered the following day.”
In the political version of what might be called, “of course, I’ll respect you in the morning,” House Democrats have announced they intend to break that promise. They will use House rules to keep Republicans from offering alternative measures because they want to show voters how quickly they can pass their “first 100 hours” agenda and allowing Republicans to offer amendments or alternative legislation, they figure, would slow them down.
Republicans are complaining about this, as one might expect, but after 12 years of treating Democrats as if they were subjects in a GOP dictatorship, they are unlikely to attract much sympathy. Plus, Democrats will have much of the big media on their side, which the Republicans, during their time in the majority, did not. The media treated every Republican legislative effort as insensitive, cruel and beneficial only to “the rich.” Don’t look for any “Gingrich That Stole Christmas” covers like Time magazine ran on former Speaker Newt Gingrich. The media will treat Democrats as caring, compassionate crusaders for the common man.
Here’s one major difference between the 1994 election and the one in 2006 and the aftermath from each. In 1994, Republicans told voters, before and after the election, precisely what they would do. Speaker Newt Gingrich did not promise fealty with Democrats, nor did he promise to practice a political Golden Rule. Voters disgusted with Democrats had given Republicans a mandate and they would ram through their “Contract with America.”
Democrats promised they would practice a political Golden Rule, doing unto Republicans what they wished Republicans had done unto them. I recommended such a strategy for Republicans in 1994, suggesting that kindness and inclusiveness would serve Republicans better in the long run than a victory dance on Democrats’ political grave. That advice was ignored, contributing to Democratic anger and bitterness and to the Republican defeat last November.
Democrats now face the same temptations that power always brings and the same pressures from their liberal interest groups that Republicans faced 12 years ago from their conservative interest groups. Unlike the Republicans, however, Democrats promised to behave differently. They claimed to have learned their lessons from the way they used to treat Republicans – and the way Republicans treated them. Apparently they will not be different, at least not until they push through their agenda that includes a minimum wage increase and ethics reform.
It is ethics reform that will – and should – receive the most attention. Voters have not trusted government for some time and the polls show their approval ratings for Congress are even lower than President Bush’s approval numbers. The House will first consider ethics rules for itself and next month plans to take up bipartisan lobbying reform legislation proposed by Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., that would create an Office of Public Integrity to help enforce the new rules.
Will the Democratic leadership live up to the public’s expectations, or down to their political lower natures? Democrats have a unique opportunity to reinvent themselves and restore public confidence. For the sake of the national interest, I’m hoping they rise to that occasion, but politicians being who and what they are, I’m betting they’ll yield to temptation and conduct business as usual. But for the country’s sake, I hope I’m wrong.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist and author.