If you haven't been following the take-no-prisoners approach of the Congressional Republican leadership--ramming through Medicare legislation by threatening reluctant GOP colleagues, barring Democrats from conference committees, keeping roll call open for almost three hours (breaking with the usual fifteen minutes)--Senator Chuck Hagel's (R, Neb) recent remarks convey some sense of the damage being done to our parliamentary system by the rightwing thugs currently running Congress.
"It's almost anything goes," said Senator Hagel, far from a liberal voice, in criticizing his own party's leadership. "I think we're on the edge of something dangerous if we don't turn it around...It's like the Middle East. You just keep ratcheting up the intensity of the conflict."
Representative Nick Smith (R, Mich), who is retiring next year and hopes his son will succeed him, is one of those feeling the heat. Smith--a feisty, independent six-term conservative Congressman--says that the arm-twisting during the Medicare vote was the strongest he has experienced in his twenty-seven years in politics.
The day after the bill squeaked through the House by a vote of 220 to 215, Smith wrote a column for a Michigan newspaper (the Lenawee Connection) detailing the Republican House Leadership's use of what he called "bribes and special deals" to eke out the margin of victory. In a subsequent interview with a Michigan radio station, Smith spoke about being pressured by the "leadership" and said "they" had offered "$100,000 plus" for his son's upcoming campaign before threatening that "some of us are going to work to make sure your son doesn't get to Congress" unless Smith relented and supported the Medicare bill. (Smith voted against the legislation.)
In the last weeks, Smith has declined to specify who allegedly offered the bribes and made the threats, though Representative Gil Gutknecht (R. Minn) recalls Smith saying it was "people from the leadership" who had offered the money. Gutknecht assumed it was someone who controlled a "large leadership PAC, who can raise a few hundred thousand dollars by hosting a few fundraisers."
What is not in dispute--even eight members of the Republican Study Committee (a group of fiscally conservative House lawmakers) agree--is that Smith was pressured in unprecedented ways by a House leadership willing to do whatever was needed to pass the bill.
The Democratic National Committee (and two independent groups that work on ethics issues) have requested a Justice Department investigation into whether the pressure on Smith was not just run-of-the-mill Capitol Hill horse-trading but a violation of federal anti-bribery law. Surprise, surprise--so far, the Justice Department says no decision has been made as to whether to investigate.
If our system worked, and there was some measure of accountability, we'd have a rigorous inquiry into who did what when and key members of the House Republican leadership would resign if Smith's allegations were proven true. The real danger is that if we don't change the way our Congress is being run, it may well be, as Rep. Barney Frank (D, Mass) said after the roll call for the Medicare vote was manipulated by the Republican leadership, "the end of parliamentary democracy as we have known it."