The Magazine


Oct 2, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 03 • By BYRON YORK
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But having Republicans run fling HUD, Commerce, and Education might actually make them harder to kill. After all, GOP leaders will think, these guys are on our side. And the political reality of Congressional oversight is that while la wmakers have a responsibility to oversee the workings of the executive branch, fealty to that res ponsibility fades when one's own party is in the White House. Democrat John Conyers, pretty energetic when it came to investigating Republican administrations as chairman of what was then called the House Government Operations Committee, seemed to lose his investigative fervor when a Democrat moved into the White House. He barely held any hearings at all during the two years of united government.

Any government watchdog should be just as uneasy about the prospect of Republicans controlling both branches. When a Republican agency does something stupid and wasteful, will a Republican Congress come down on it as heavily as if the transgressors were Democrats? They'll have to know that doing so might damage their party in the White House. One small example. It was reported recently that Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary grabbed $ 400,000 from the department's nuclear regulatory funds to pay for security for her extensive travels. The Republican Congress is rightfully up in arms. It simply strains credulity to believe Republicans will be as vocal and as aggressive when their own party is running the agencies.

In the meantime, the Republican Congress is forcing real reforms on the Democratic-controlled executive branch. Contrast the pace of change at HUD under Jack Kemp (non-existent) and HUD under Henry Cisneros with a Republican Congress on his back (significant). The reforms might well quicken in a second Clinton term; there will no doubt be quite a lot of change at the top of the agencies, and it seems likely the only people Clinton will be able to find who want the jobs and who could be confirmed by a Republican Senate will be moderate in the first place. It's possible that a kind of productive antagonism like that between Congress and HUD will spread throughout the departments.

But maybe a Republican president will keep the Republican Congress in line. Perhaps the new chief executive will really believe -- and act on -- the hard truth that you cannot succeed by trimming government programs but must instead rip them out by the roots.

That is hard to picture. Unlike any member of Congress, the president is elected nationally; for him, all those programs affect some constituent group or another. Would a President Dole, who fights as hard as anyone for money for his voters in Kansas, passionately argue for killing programs that would affect his voters across the country? What would a President Grimm, who denounces pork but says he wants his share to go to Texas, do when his constituency is the entire nation? Perhaps we'd start hearing a lot about getting rid of waste, fraud, and abuse, and less talk of reducing government.

This plain political reality would be exacerbated by the people in the White House inner circle. Of Ed Meese, Michael Deaver, James Baker, and their ilk, Stockman wrote, "the White House itself had surrendered to the political necessities of the welfare state early on."

The president's inner circle is politically loyal to him. They watch polls constantly, they think short-term, they're scared of anything that causes his popularity to dip. And he relies on them, regardless of what the ideologues in his own party say. If Bob Dole wants his chief of staff, Sheila Burke, in a critical position, he'll put her in a critical position -- because she has been with him on the Long March and is personally loyal to him. It doesn't matter that she's been bashed in every conservative journal of opinion; a president simply has to: have loyalty in his inner circle. The "No New Darmans" pledge now being circulated by activist Grover Norquist is clever but unworkable. There will always be Darmans.

If domestic policy were the only issue at stake, a vote for Clinton would be easy. Change the subject to foreign policy -- Clinton's biggest weakness -- and things are not so clear-cut. But there's still a case to be made.

Given Ronald Reagan's monumental victory over communism, it is certainly impossible to argue that his Republican administration failed in dealing with the major foreign policy question f its day. But that was then and this is now. Look at some of today's most pressing foreign policy issues and ask whether today's Republicans would outclass Clinton.