I'm not a huge fan of Norm Ornstein. He's trashed Republicans so often in the last few years, it's become hard at times to read him. Nevertheless, his column today -- offering suggestions to House Democrats on how to reform the institution -- offers some value to House Republicans.
First, let's assume that House Democrats ignore most or all of what Ornstein suggests. It's hard for the team in power to make concessions to the minority. That should not be true however, of the team that's out-of-power. Republicans have a limited set of issues to use against Democrats, and they need to look at everything in the toolbox.
A critical tool in a time of voter anger is the reform agenda. Unencumbered with chairmanships and power, Republicans can and should embrace reform wherever possible -- immigration, spending, health care, national defense, etc. Ornstein offers some ideas on how to sell a reform agenda for the institution:
Democrats are taking comfort from the fact that much of the anger and disappointment people feel is aimed at Republicans. It should be scant comfort. To be sure, a recent ABC-Washington Post poll showed Republicans at 32 percent approval and 63 percent disapproval. But Democrats are not exactly exempt from public disgust; the same survey showed only 36 percent approval for them, with 58 percent disapproval. If Democrats think they can count on the unhappiness with President Bush and the residue of repugnance with the performance in Washington when the Republicans controlled all the levers of power, they are delusional. There is clearly a broader public anger about the performance of most institutions, but especially those in Washington, and it could very, very easily turn into a broader and deeper reaction against the status quo and all incumbents.
Dig a bit deeper, and it is obvious that voters are tired of the partisan bickering and ideologically driven rancor — they want problems solved in Washington, not yelling or posturing or revenge killing that only results in gridlock. The latter is what they see coming out of Congress...
The second thing Democrats should do is to accept the possibility of defeat on the floor as something short of a disaster. The biggest failing of the GOP in the 109th was an unwillingness to lose no matter what. Of course, you don’t want to lose, and can’t afford to lose on some basic important issues and priorities. But in other cases, amendments can be constructive or no great disaster (and in some cases, amendments the majority doesn’t like can be allowed to pass and jettisoned in conference).
The third thing Democrats should do is to move aggressively to more debate, and not only between Democrats and Republicans. Now is a perfect time to revive the idea of regular prime-time debates on important issues. Take one evening a week, in special orders, and structure a lively debate on something of concern to the country. Have two or four Members lead the way in debate, and follow with a free-for-all discussion. In some cases, say global warming or trade, have both majority and minority Members on each side. Add to that a regular process of having real debate on bills that reach the floor whenever possible.
Things like Oxford-style debates make good government types happy, without changing the substance of policy. So go for it. Include this promise in the 'Contract with America II' you release next Summer. They will of course, be ignored a few weeks after they start. But that's not a loss.
Also promise to let the majority in the House have its way on legislation. Offer more open debate and more amendments -- at least on other-than-critical legislation. Promise to refrain from arm-twisting to achieve a pre-determined outcome -- understanding that it will have to be used on must-pass legislation. And when the Republican leadership 'loses' a vote, crow about it and brag how it shows that you've restored fairness in the people's House.
I have other ideas as well, which I'll write about at a later time. But in a presidential election, most attention is focused on the presidential race and the policies laid out by the two candidates. It will be hard to establish a House Republican agenda that can give a boost to your candidates nationwide. While you can attack incumbent Democrats for their votes, it will be hard to win back control of the House going race-by-race. If you can find some issues that can offer traction -- to create some 'wind at the back' for Republican candidates -- your job is that much easier.
House reform -- which goes directly to the critical issue of restoring trust in the responsiveness and effective working of government -- will be important. It also offers a chance to showcase the failings of the Democratic House. EG:
- We won't steal votes after the gavel -- like the Democrats did.
- We won't bottle up popular legislation as the Democrats have done on border security and other bills.
- We will bring up for a vote real earmark reform -- to ensure that Congressmen can't buy re-election with taxpayer-funded pork.