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Did You Get My Message?

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton makes a phone call.

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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House D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton left an interesting voicemail on a lobbyist’s answering machine a couple of weeks ago:

This is, uh, Eleanor Norton. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Uh, I noticed that you have given to uh, other colleagues on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. I am a, um, senior member, a 20-year veteran and am chair of the subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. I’m handling the largest economic development project in the United States now, the Homeland Security Compound of three buildings being built on the uh, old St. Elizabeth’s hospital site in the District of Columbia along with uh, 15 other, uh, sites here for, that are part of the stimulus. 

I was, frankly, uh, uh, surprised to see that we don’t have a record, so far as I can tell, of your having given to me despite my uh, long and deep uh, work. In fact, it’s been my major work, uh, on the committee and subcommittee it’s been essentially in your sector. I am, I’m simply candidly calling to ask for a contribution. As the senior member of the um, committee and a subcommittee chair, we have [chuckles] obligations to raise, uh funds. And, I think it must have been me who hasn’t, frankly, uh, done my homework to ask for a contribution earlier. So I’m trying to make up for it by asking for one now, when we particularly, uh, need, uh contributions, particularly those of us who have the seniority and chairmanships and are in a position to raise the funds. 

I’m asking you to give to Citizens for Eleanor Holmes Norton, P.O. Box 70626, DC, 20024. I’ll send you a follow-up note with appreciation for having heard me out. Thanks again.

Are you shocked? Probably not. If you’ve been paying attention, you know this is what politics in Washington, D.C., has come to. If you set up a casino of welfare statism, crony capitalism, and big government liberalism, this is what you’re going to get.

But you should be shocked. We should all be shocked. This isn’t the way American politics has to be. We can be hardheaded about the nature of politics (and human nature) and acknowledge that politics will always have its seamy side. But in the world of big government liberalism, the opportunities for seaminess multiply, and the constraints wither away. 

That’s why it’s right that the very nature of big government liberalism is at the center of this year’s election campaign. It’s why Republican politicians and conservative activists shouldn’t focus too much on the legal questions raised by this voicemail—it might, for instance, be an FEC violation to use information about other donations to solicit campaign funds (“I noticed that you have given to other colleagues on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee”), and it raises legal and House ethics questions for Norton to seem to be soliciting funds based on past actions taken in her official capacity in Congress (“my major work on the committee and subcommittee it’s been essentially in your sector”).

No. While Republican politicians and conservative activists can insist on a proper investigation of such legal issues, we would urge them not to focus too much on the personal ethical transgressions of Norton—or, for that matter, of Charlie Rangel. The point is not that there are individual bad apples in Congress, or that such bad apples might be disproportionately Democratic ones. The point is that this is what happens when you have crony capitalism and a big government welfare state. Tea Party activists already understand this. The Norton phone call is just more evidence for their broader point about how the current system works and why it has to be reformed.

So our advice to GOP candidates is this: Go ahead and play aloud the Eleanor Holmes Norton tape. But don’t then waste time excoriating the D.C. delegate. Instead, ask your constituents whether this is the kind of government they want. Point out to them that low tax rates do not invite this kind of extortion, while earmarks and stimulus spending packages do. Turn the ethical issues of this Congress (and this administration) into fodder for a broad reform agenda of re-limiting government. Explain that only such an agenda can begin to drain the swamp.

Then get elected, refuse to play by the rules of the swamp, and systematically work to dismantle the policies and practices of big government, interest group, welfare state, crony capitalist liberalism.

—William Kristol 


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