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Bush’s Watergate

Illustration by Mr. Fish

With larger margins in the House and Senate, President Bush, Co-President Rove and Vice President Cheney have more than a governing majority. They have absolute dominance — or so they believe. They intend to use it. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital," Bush said. "And now I intend to spend it. That is my style.

"I’ll reach out to everyone who shares our goals," Bush also said. Trying to be healing and inclusive. But what’s left for those who don’t share in those goals? Who still believe in Social Security, public schools, the War Powers Act and some regulation of minerals extraction. They can, as LBJ used to say, "hunker down and take it, like a jackrabbit in a hailstorm." Or they can organize an opposition. Yet outside a few friendly think tanks, Democrats in Washington have few places from which they can effectively oppose the Bush program.

Perhaps just one.

A year and one week ago, I was in Washington, working on a book about House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. I had scanned Roll Call’s daily bulletin and saw he would be testifying before a House Ways and Means subcommittee that afternoon. Cutting through the Longworth Congressional Office Building in the morning, I ducked into the Ways and Means Committee Room to get some idea of what I might expect later in the day. I took a seat, looked for the usual pack of reporters, and there were none to be seen. The House Republican Conference meeting was closed to the press, and their leaders were "whipping" the Medicare prescription-drug benefit bill. On the podium at the front of the ornate committee room sat Tom DeLay, watching the deputy whips work the floor while Majority Whip Roy Blunt talked about the high stakes involved.

It was more than the Medicare vote. It was holding on to their majority in the House. "You saw what happened to them," the whip said of the House Dems. "You saw how they became the minority party. Do you want to follow them into the minority? We need every member, including those on our right flank." The party’s survival, in other words, hinged on House Republicans hanging together when they walked across Independence Avenue to the Capitol. The Democrats had lost the House because they were internally divided. Several days later, the Republicans passed their $500 billion prescription-drug bill, after an unprecedented three-hour vote ended shortly before 6 in the morning. It was a demonstration of party loyalty that Democrats rarely achieve. (The Democrats actually won the vote for that bill, which the Republicans stole by violating the 15-minute vote rule and letting the clock run for almost three hours. And by engaging in unethical and perhaps illegal pressure tactics on the floor.)

Party loyalty, and the creative use of their minority status in Congress, is the Democrats’ best hope of slowing the Bush agenda and perhaps beginning the gradual process of returning to power. The Republicans became a majority in the House by using whatever mechanisms the institution provided — they even invented some — to expose the Democrats and offer up the Republican Party as the solution to the problems created by the corrupt, entrenched majority. In 1983, Newt Gingrich formed the Conservative Opportunity Society, a cabal of young right-wing Republicans, and took on the House Democrats. When Clinton was elected in 1992, they turned their attention to the White House. They never relented until they broke the Democratic majority stranglehold. They won the House in 1994 only because Clinton overreached — in his attempt to overhaul health care and his ban on assault weapons.

 

George W. Bush and Karl Rove are primed to rewrite the tax code, privatize Social Security, lock in the capital-gains tax reductions, the end of inheritance taxes and the tax cuts the rich Bush passed as temporary measures in his first term. They will push for oil and gas exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve, the western front of the Rockies and the coal-bed methane fields in northeast Wyoming. Bush will put a proven conservative on the Supreme Court and continue to stack appellate and district courts with right-wing ideologues. And in the words of Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who does most of the Republicans’ big thinking, Bush "will shove tort reform up the Democrats’ behinds."

None of this is a state secret. It’s the talk of the town in Washington and grist for the daily press mill. Nor is it a secret that the entire Bush agenda will be shoved up the Democrats’ behinds. Bipartisan governance is now a quaint concept, the queer marriage of James Carville and Mary Matalin the only bipartisan accommodation left in Washington.

The expanded Republican majority in the House will drive Bush’s agenda and keep the pressure on the Senate, where Democrats still can filibuster. Texas singer-songwriter (and Guggenheim fellow) Terry Allen wrote Lubbock (On Everything). What you are about to see in Washington will be Texas (on everything). Like a cancer, the politics of the state that gave the nation Ross Perot, George Bush, and penile implants in executive health-coverage plans has now metastasized.

 

Second terms allow time for new scandals to ripen or old scandals to be dug up by reporters, and with the Bush Dynasty there is more metastasizing than politics and policy. Don’t look to the U.S. Department of Justice to do its job. Los Angeles Congressman Henry Waxman has done a better job of investigating Dick Cheney’s Halliburton than Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will ever do. But the business dealings of Bush — and Cheney — still could come back to bite them. "George W. Bush was either incredibly lucky or he is a crook," Austin journalist Robert Bryce writes in Cronies. Bryce makes a compelling argument that the Bush Dynasty is the beneficiary of and a vector for the spreading of the crony capitalism that gives the brown skies of Texas the smell of cooking petroleum and cooked books. After all, Martha Stewart is doing time for a lesser rap than the president dodged in 1990. George Bush Jr., as he was known at the time, used his position as a board member serving on an in-house audit committee to make a quick $318,420 by dumping his Harken oil stock before it went in the tank. Then he used his father’s position as president to smooth things over at the Security and Exchange Commission. (It helped, as Bryce reports, that the SEC was headed by Bush appointee Richard Breeden, an attorney from the Baker & Botts law firm in Houston. And that the SEC general counsel was James Doty, who also came out of Baker & Botts and had handled the paperwork when Bush bought his 2 percent of the Texas Rangers baseball team. The current Baker in the Houston law firm is James Baker III, who ran Team Bush’s Florida recount in 2000.) That’s an old story, and Bush survived it. Maybe he is lucky.

But his administration has institutionalized corruption, which is a more current story. It handed Halliburton a $7 billion no-bid contract to rebuild Iraq’s oilfield infrastructure, while former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney was still drawing a check from the company. It looked the other way at Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root’s over-the-top bills for gasoline in Iraq, allowing Karl Rove to sit in on White House conferences with companies in which he held stock. It appointed Baker III special emissary to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, while Baker & Botts was doing pipeline deals in the region.

 

It’s all about oil with these guys. The Bush administration has been in court for three years, fighting to keep secret the working notes of the energy task force Vice President Cheney chaired to draft the administration’s energy-policy initiative. A federal appeals court has ordered the documents released. If the litigation ever ends, it could be revealed the energy group was making plans for Iraqi oil that would later be secured by the blood of young American soldiers. The conservative public-interest advocacy group Judicial Watch has already obtained some of the energy-group material, which includes maps of Iraqi oilfields.

It’s also known that former Enron executive Ken Lay met with the vice president and others on the task force before the company gamed the market to increase the price of electricity in California. After meeting with Lay, Cheney adopted his policy recommendation and opposed the energy-rate caps that would have saved California billions of dollars and a summer of rolling blackouts. Was there a quid pro quo for Enron, the company that had nurtured and underwritten Bush’s political career? At another Enron crime scene back in Texas, prosecutors are leaning on Lay’s wife about the insider stock deals she’s alleged to have made. Lay will probably talk to keep his wife out of jail. A talking Ken Lay is never good for the Bushes. The $750,000 political contributions Lay and others at Enron gave Bush while he was in Texas might be explored in court. If federal prosecutors are too timid to ask about the political cash, one of the trial lawyers representing thousands of stockholders robbed by Enron might be inclined to do so. And there are those Bush-family closet skeletons wearing the red-checked kaffiyehs so fashionable in the House of Saud. Bush’s business relations with representatives of the country that provided the pilots for the 9/11 attacks extend through Houston banks, energy companies and law firms. One House of Bush, House of Saud book has already been done, and reporters and authors are still working that fertile ground.

 

And there’s Iraq.

There are also the residual scandals of Bush’s first term, which Democrats would have investigated if they had won a majority in the Senate. They will have to be more clever. Congressman Henry Waxman has created a methodology of his own, leveraging the limited power he holds as ranking minority member of House Government Oversight. Working without the subpoena power the Republican committee chair denies him, Waxman has turned up documents on Halliburton’s profiteering in Iraq, the intelligence failure leading up to the war, the shortage of flu vaccine and the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

Congress is the only foothold the Democrats have left, and even there the footing is dicey. But they can count on President Bush to overreach. Each of his big policy items is an opportunity. Pulling $2 trillion out of Social Security to put into private retirement accounts will require reduction in benefits for baby boomers, the largest and most politically engaged demographic in the country. Permanent tax cuts for the rich offer an equation that affects working-class Americans. School vouchers reduce funding for the public schools that educate most of the nation’s kids (and California isn’t giving charter schools much in the way of good press). Permanently killing the estate tax helps only the very wealthiest people in the nation. An abstract discussion of women’s reproductive rights is far different from the nomination of a Supreme Court justice who will end them.

House Democrats and their counterparts in the Senate, where individual members have more power than members of the lower chamber, might begin to do like Waxman: use their staffs, offices and committee positions to ferret out corrupt politics behind bad policy. Then publicize it in an organized, methodical fashion. Democrats are now the loyal opposition, and it’s time for them to oppose, expose and expound. They have nothing to lose but their permanent minority status.

Lou Dubose is co-author with Jan Reid of The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress (Public Affairs).


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