The sad — and scary — diminution of Congressional Republicans
The Major League Baseball playoffs are terrific: Two games scoreless going into the 15th and 18th innings, walk-off home runs, a team making up a seven-run deficit, the two biggest spending teams knocked out early.
I’ve been a baseball fan for decades, but these games are so good, there is no nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of yesteryear.
Were it only so in politics, especially Congress.
A reminder of how much better it used to be was a forum on a book, “The Congressional Journal of Barber B. Conable, Jr.,” who served, always in the minority, for 20 years; 17 of them — 1968 to 1984 — are in these diaries.
Conable was an exceptionally smart, thoughtful upstate New Yorker with a deep belief in the institution of Congress. He thought his constituents sent him to Washington to be a serious legislator, making or modifying laws.
The great value of these real-time diaries is capturing the dance of legislative politics: the ebbs and flows, the frequent chaos, the human frailties, the stitching together of a majority from 435 representatives from diverse districts and regions and the difference resourceful members can make. The book should be required for any college course on Congress or legislative politics.
Conable was a Republican loyalist, a close friend of future Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. He could, at times, be a fierce partisan.
However, he took the legislative role seriously; he would reach across the aisle to try to find common ground. The diaries reveal his disdain for lightweights, pretenders and bullies — Republicans and Democrats alike.
His closest colleagues were fellow moderate Republicans — Bill Steiger, Bill Gradison, Bill Frenzel — but he had great admiration, and worked with, liberal Democrats like Abner Mikva, Florida’s Sam Gibbons and his New York colleague, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who observed: “Some men meet standards, others set them. Barber Conable has been one of the others.”
At the forum, Jim Jones, an Oklahoma Democrat who served with Conable on the Ways and Means and Budget committees, recalled the times they would argue, even passionately, over a bill — and then have dinner together with their wives.
A prodigious worker, Conable never was captive of special interests, refusing to accept more than $50 in campaign contributions.
The relevance of this this trip down memory lane is the contrast with his successors today.
To be sure, the old days in the House were far from perfect: There were hateful segregationists, few women, and the Banking Committee once seemed like a farm club for Allenwood Penitentiary.
Yet as Republicans seem poised to take over the House next year, can anyone imagine Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) or Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) displaying any of the Conable traits?
This follows a desultory campaign where inflation, rising at more than 8 percent, understandably was the top issue. Almost no Democrat or Republican offered much thoughtful analysis or any real solutions.
Republicans charged it’s all due to the big-spending Democrats. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Joe Biden didn’t have anything to do with an even higher inflation rate in countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany with a 10 percent rate of inflation. This is a post-pandemic global phenomenon.
The other big GOP issue is crime, charging that Democrats want to “defund the police,” which they don’t, and that Congressional Republicans will alleviate it, which they won’t.
What they will do is one headline-seeking investigation after another: Hunter Biden, Merrick Garland (if the Attorney General has the temerity to follow the rule of law in dealing with Donald Trump), DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Anthony Fauci… maybe Elvis. The model is the 2015 House GOP’s investigation of Benghazi, where four Americans died when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State of State. The two-year, almost $8 million investigation produced nothing — except, as House Republican Leader McCarthy boasted in a rare moment of candor, to tarnish Clinton as she ran for president.
Stefanik is already talking about impeaching Biden. They’ll find some excuse.
If you think this is exaggerating, read the New York Times Magazine piece by Robert Draper on Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who — among many other things — suggested Jewish laser beams from Space may have caused California wildfires. The first-term Georgia Republican, who has not displayed any interest in — or knowledge of — legislation, bragged that if the GOP takes the House, she’s in line to get top committee assignments, like Judiciary and Oversight.
Barber Conable would be apoplectic.
Unlike baseball, Congress was a lot better — a hell of a lot better — back then.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.
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