Panic button.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Jan. 20 2006 11:35 AM

Panic Button

At last, House Republicans learn to run for their lives.

80_thehasbeen

Friday, Jan. 20, 2006

About Face: All week long, the Republican Congress has been on a mad dash for salvation. Each of the three men jockeying to replace Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader claims to be the true reform candidate. Six months ago, John McCain's colleagues rolled their eyes whenever he brought up reform at the caucus luncheon; now House and Senate Republicans alike have asked him to help write their lobby-reform proposals. Rep. Bob Ney's golfing junket to Scotland turned out to serve an educational purpose after all.

Now that Democrats have made a big splash with their can-you-top-this reform package, a Washington Post editorial called "A Rush on Lobbying Reform" actually warns that "in their zeal to outbid each other, they will go too far." The Post doesn't elaborate, either because editors couldn't honestly think of a reform that would go too far or because they've been in Washington long enough to know that should be the least of their worries.

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Until we see the details, we won't know whether Republicans in Congress have any stomach for real reform or are counting on their leaders to make sure this is only a face-saving exercise. Already, some members have sent smoke signals to be patient and let the reform urge fade.

But the true significance of the current Republican panic isn't the unlikely hope that the GOP has somehow gotten religion on reform. This was a landmark week for another reason: For the first time in nearly a decade, House Republicans are more frightened of the American people than of Tom DeLay.

Coffee Talk: When the Founders designed the House of Representatives, their whole point was to make it responsive to the masses. They were so worried that the people's House would run amok doing what the people wanted that they created the Senate as a saucer to cool the coffee, in Washington's famous phrase to Jefferson.

Tom DeLay turned out to be no Tom Jefferson. He knew his House colleagues' most immediate fear wasn't big government, terrorist attack, or moral decline. Their biggest worry was the one Jefferson intended: losing their seats or losing their majority.

In a profession as volatile as politics, the natural instinct is to insulate oneself from the fickle moods of the electorate. That was DeLay's mission from the start. His K Street Project gave Republicans a bottomless line of credit to finance their campaigns and a lucrative retirement system for members who lost or retired. He helped rewrite district lines in Texas and elsewhere to protect Republican incumbents and pad their majority.

As an instrument of party discipline, DeLay's system worked wonders. No matter how unpopular a bill might be with the voters, he could always twist enough arms to get it passed.

Yet along the way, DeLay and his colleagues forgot the most important lesson Newt Gingrich had taught them in 1994: Accountability to the voters is a blessing, not a curse.

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