Distracted nation

To most observers "The Contract with America," Congressman Newt Gingrich’s 1994 brainchild, appears to have slipped beyond the political horizon. The Republican campaign promise to reduce the power, size, and reach of government has come, over the last four years, to be regarded as a failure, except insofar as some of its features have been adopted by the Democrats. Yet scanning the desultory process of government in Washington this past year and anticipating the standstill to come as the Senate debates the articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, it seems that our political life may have been greatly diminished not only by Mr. Clinton but by the apparently moribund Republican revolution as well. Is it possible that the Republicans have carried out their revolution by other means, namely putting the country’s political needs on hold while titillating the media and distracting the citizenry with the salacious details of the Lewinsky affair? There is more than one way to reduce the influence of government. Relentless partisan pursuit of impeachment and conviction is one of them.

As the scandal of Mr. Clinton’s behavior and his lying has gradually emerged over the past year, his capacity to govern has been repeatedly questioned. But is this really the issue? What about the capacity of the Congress itself, to examine and legislate, to focus on the critical questions facing the nation? Education, health-care policy, campaign finance, and Social Security reform have been on the waiting line at least through the last two congressional sessions. How little our elected representatives have done. How little the American people, more or less indifferent to impeachment and to politics, have demanded of them. And how little this situation seems likely to change in the 106th Congress.

Nor are domestic issues alone in suffering neglect. Congress has relatively less power than the president to make and execute foreign policy. Even so, it squanders the powers it does possesses. What Congress has not obstructed by petty fogging committee quarreling, it has settled by doing nothing. Dues long owed to the United Nations remain unpaid, and this despite the selection of Kofi Annan as secretary general, the man with whom the Congress said it could work. Our policies toward North Korea and Russia are shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty, though both countries represent dangerous and volatile situations to the whole world. Where are the hearings that might throw some light on what the State Department is doing and planning to do? Indeed, concentrating the diplomatic mind by asking questions in public might resolve some of that ambiguity. The Middle East continues in disarray, but ironically it is only Mr. Clinton who seems to have time to pay attention. If Republican senators, Trent Lott for one, really believe that the December bombing of Iraq was an effort by Clinton to forestall an impeachment vote, why haven’t Secretaries Madeleine Albright and William Cohen been called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for explanations? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on the brink of destroying the peace process. Wouldn’t congressional hearings send a warning shot that there will be limits to U.S. support if the peace process fails? And as the Israelis pursue their reckless course, what is the United States planning to do if the Palestinians declare themselves a sovereign state? Stand back in surprise?

But governance is not just policymaking. Attention must be paid as well to the structure and functioning of government-particularly if, as the Republicans preach, we are to have less of it. But agencies that required rethinking after the end of the cold war-most obviously the Defense Department and the military-continue to be seen as pork barrel projects first and instruments of foreign policy only secondarily. The emerging record of the CIA’s assessment failures and errors of judgment during the cold war alone should raise questions about the seriousness of congressional oversight, especially of an organizational culture that seems to foster qualities the exact opposite of those needed by an "intelligence" agency (see, Senator Daniel Moynihan’s astute new book, Secrecy [Yale University Press, 1998]).

Some have argued that finally all of this is Mr. Clinton’s responsibility. There would be no paralysis if he hadn’t had sex in the Oval Office, if he hadn’t lied about it, if he hadn’t covered up and misled others who testified on his behalf. And now, if he would just resign, Washington could get back to business. As derelict as the president has been, we doubt that his dismissal from office would free Congress to do the nation’s work. The Clinton scandal serves Republican interests in more ways than one. Were Clinton to go, there would be other reasons to govern by not governing. As it is, we are now the world’s only superpower, but acting without great intelligence, without serious policy planning or significant political deliberation and oversight either at the White House or in Congress. Prosperity fosters the Republican illusion that minimal and quiescent government is good government. At home as abroad, we squander seven fat years on scandal, while the nation’s and the world’s real needs stand waiting for attention. That is a scandal and it hardly garners a headline.

Published in the 1999-01-15 issue: 

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