From the moment Republicans seized control of Congress in the 1994 elections they began their long, downhill slide into the sewer of arrogance, lust for power and corruption.
Newt Gngrich stood on the stage in an auditorium of the Hyatt Regency in Washington and declared “a new day is dawning” as he promised vast reforms of the bloated, favors-driven machine called the Congress of the United States.
But instead of reform, Gingrich simply replaced one for sale to the highest bidder political machine for another, unleashing a power-mad Republican monster just as dirty and scandal-ridden as the one it replaced.
Voters threw out the Democratic leadership of Congress not so much because they wanted Republicans in charge but more because they were upset with the first two-years of heavy-handed actions by the Bill Clinton White House. Clinton’s failed national health plan and his attempt to push a liberal agenda alienated many voters and in the mid-term elections of 1994 they turned to the only alternatives they had – Republican challengers to the Democrats in Congress.
Gingrich, however, saw the elections as a mandate for an extremist GOP agenda, a misread of public attitudes that would come back to haunt Republicans again and again over the next 10 years.
Republicans rode into office on Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” wide-ranging promises of vast government reform, including imposing term limits for service in Washington, an end to pork-barrel legislation, dismantling the “good old boy” system of governing and sacking the practice of tacking “non-germane” legislative actions onto spending bills at the last minute.
Term limits bit the dust first. With power in their grasp, Republicans weren’t about to threaten it by limiting their time in office. Gingrich rammed through some cosmetic changes in House rules but it soon became apparent that the names and party may have changed in the leadership offices but the standard operating procedure was business as usual.
Clinton recovered and won a second term and even his lying about dalliances with a White House intern survived a bungling GOP attempt to bring him down. While decrying Clinton’s adultery, Gingrich carried on an affair with a House staffer and dumped his second wife (who got the job by carrying on with him during his first marriage). Dan Burton, chairman of the committee investigating Clinton, admitted fathering a baby out of wedlock amid disclosures of widespread tail-chasing by himself and other Republicans.
Meanwhile, Republicans abandoned other planks of the “Contract with America” by pushing through the most-pork laden, expensive transportation bill in history and returning to other old habits, including loading up spending bills with anti-abortion and other right-wing amendments.
Gingrich left the House in disgrace but the machine he built continued to grow into a power-grabbing, money-grubbing monolith. New House speaker Dennis J. Hastert held the office but Majority Leader Tom DeLay controlled the GOP’s agenda, browbeating Republicans and Democrats alike into submission while selling votes and access to the highest bidders.
The disputed election of George W. Bush in 2000 did not slow the viral spread of unchecked power and corruption. Under Bush’s watch, using the 9/11 terrorist attacks to full political advantage, the White House and Congress built the largest government in history, led by the rights-swallowing Department of Homeland Security, and paid for with the highest federal deficits ever.
With Republican control the Constitution became an “outdated document” with American civil rights and liberties expendable under a government that discarded and ignored the laws of the land.
Bush, with the approval of both Republicans and Democrats who voted with their eyes closed, led the country into a war built on lies borne out of fabricated or non-existent rationales. Both the White House and Congress became the personal property of the rich and powerful, a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy and for the wealthy.
Yet sometimes the stench of corruption can overwhelm even a place like Washington, a city of excess built on a swamp, The lasting stain of scandal has reached into every nook and crevice of power in the Nation’s Capital and many may find themselves washed away by the ton of disinfectant that will be needed to cleanse the city and the government that lurks there.
Some have fallen already: Scooter Libby, Duke Cunningham and others. Tom DeLay thought he could hold on to his leadership post but scandal-weary moderates forced him to quit his job before they fired him.
Some say serious campaign finance reform is the answer but the current system grew out of the post-Watergate “reforms” of the 70s. Reform will not fix our problems and neither will a few resignations or a handful of convictions. The system is rotten to the core and the rot is too widespread to just be cut out and thrown away.
This is no longer just a case of one rotten apple spoiling the bushel. The whole damn orchard is infected and the only answer may be to bulldoze the place and start over.