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Politicians serve at the pleasure of citizenry

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted December 20, 2004

Congressman Ernest Istook (R-OK) is a friend.  I was delighted when he challenged Congressman Mickey Edwards in a primary in Oklahoma City and won.  Edwards had been in Washington too long.  He had forgotten many of the conservative principles which took him to Washington back in 1976.  Istook, an investigative journalist, took him on and then won the November election.  He has been a shoo-in for re-election ever since.

Ernest Istook
Istook

Since the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in the 1994 elections, Istook has done many fine things.  Since he has been the Chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, something has caused him to override common sense.

Time and time again, he zeroes out various transportation projects or announces that they can’t move forward in their current state.  Time and time again, he gets rolled by the full Appropriations Committee or gets forced by political pressure to back down.

Istook is no fan of Amtrak in its present form, nor am I.  David Gunn, the very capable President and CEO of Amtrak, who has done more to make that system work than any CEO Amtrak ever had, told the Appropriations Committee that he needed $1.8 billion for the next several years to get the system in shape.  Istook rejected Gunn’s request.

Twenty-one Members of the House, Republicans all, sent Istook a letter making the case for the $1.8 billion.  Many of these Members had transportation projects which had to be approved by Istook’s Subcommittee.  What did Istook do?  He zeroed every one of them out.  Apparently if you express your views on Amtrak to Mr. Istook, that is enough for you to get the axe.

I have no problem with Istook’s having explained to these 21 Members why he disagrees with their views.  But to punish the people of the various districts just because their Member signed a letter to the Subcommittee Chairman strikes me as an abuse of power.  Moreover, in every case the full Appropriations Committee reversed Istook.  If lower court judges are known by the reversals of their opinions by higher courts, then Members of Congress are known by reversals of their subcommittee work by the full committee.  Istook is the champion of reversals.

Mind you, I don’t intend to defend appropriators.  Many use their positions for shameful earmarks which cannot be justified.  And although I have examined the projects Istook zeroed out and found no problem with them, much of what appropriators do can’t be defended.  

It is the way Istook operated here that causes ordinary citizens to lose faith in their system of government.  If a Member of Congress has to be afraid to sign a letter to a Subcommittee Chairman expressing a contrary view to that of the Chairman, then we have a different system of government than the one I thought existed.  That is how legislators in other countries behave.  If you dare to challenge a powerful legislator in Venezuela, that is the sort of treatment you get.  In contemporary Russia legislators who challenge the government of President Putin find themselves out in the legislative cold, unable even to get recognized to ask a question.  We were not like that in America, at least until now.

Douglas MacKinnon, a former Congressional aide to Senator Bob Dole and former White House and Pentagon staffer (no liberal he) called Istook’s actions “swift, secretive, painful and infuriating.”  He said that when Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) learned of Istook’s actions, McHugh came close to physically assaulting the subcommittee Chairman.  

MacKinnon said the Istook staff was anything but conciliatory toward the 21 Members whom they had harmed.  An Istook spokeswoman said, “Last year they had 32 Members sign the letter.  This year it was only 21, so some people got the message.”  Yes, some people are now fearful of making their views known to Mr. Istook.  That is not right under our system of government.  

This came on the heels of Istook’s having been responsible for a provision in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill which allowed some Members and staff to examine income tax returns under certain circumstances.  The House and Senate had to make a special trip back to Washington to repeal that terribly embarrassing provision.  An Istook staffer, Richard Efford, a veteran of the House Appropriations Committee, took the fall.  He claimed that he had inserted the language permitting the income tax inspection in the Bill without Istook having known about it.  That could have happened but there is a lot of doubt about the explanation offered.  Even if true, Istook has to accept responsibility for what happened inasmuch as he is the boss of the offending staffer.

Istook wrote a letter of apology to the 21 Congressmen.  Their projects were restored by the full Appropriations Committee and eventually by the House itself.  

The National Taxpayers Union, with which I often agree, wrote a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal saying that Istook has nothing for which to apologize.  They said it is high time that appropriators get serious about cutting spending.  I could not agree more.  However, this is not a good way to go about it.  And if everything is reversed, then what good was accomplished?

MacKinnon, in an op-ed piece, suggested that the Republican leadership is going to have to deal with Istook in the next Congress.  

There is talk that Istook will be removed as Chairman of the Transportation and Treasury Appropriations Subcommittee.  There is even talk that he will not be permitted to chair any Subcommittee.  That is because the leadership is so angry over having to repeal that IRS provision.  Richard Efford, the Istook staffer who took the fall for the IRS flap, has been around the Hill for 19 years, many years before Istook got to Washington.  MacKinnon says, and I agree based on my experience with the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, that it is highly unlikely that Efford would have done something so drastic without the knowledge of his boss.

MacKinnon also pointed out that in the 40 years the Democrats controlled the House they became arrogant.  He says he sees some of the same behavior beginning to surface among some Republicans after just ten years.  As MacKinnon said, “Maybe it is well past time for the very able House leadership to remind any GOP brats and egomaniacs that they serve at the pleasure of the American people and that, oh by the way, we are a nation at war.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

 

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