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The Hammer Strikes | Village Voice

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The Hammer Strikes


Senator Trent Lott knew. So did Representative Tom DeLay. As the world braced for each twist of a court decision, each swing of the judiciary for Al Gore or George W. Bush, the crouching tiger and the hidden dragon of the United States Congress lay in the tall grass, waiting for the real contest to begin.

The latest round in the battle for control of America—the struggle that will decide not just the country’s political priorities, not just who shares in its riches, but what the nation believes itself to be—was determined long before the first Florida ballot could be recounted. Even without a set of Bush boots on the Oval Office desk, conservatives like Lott and DeLay knew they had kept their hold on Capitol Hill. Their margin of victory wasn’t great, but they knew what to do with it.

Barely balanced atop a Senate likely to be divided in half, Lott and the other right-wing leaders quickly brushed aside moderates in their own party who wanted to share the smallest dollop of power with the minority Democrats. “Somebody has to be in charge,” Senator Lott told reporters this month, expressing a sentiment his GOP colleagues echoed, a few with those exact words, “and we will be very clear about what we will do here.”

What they will do is simple, really. The Republican plan, for which Bush is but the latest figurehead, can be understood in two broad strokes: kill off what’s left of the New Deal social programs, and speed up the return of power to the states at the expense of the federal government.

The next two years promise to be dangerous for the splintered ranks of liberals, who increment by increment have lost seats both local and federal to the unified right. Ever since Richard Nixon bowed out of the clouded 1960 election, conceding victory to John Kennedy, Republicans have felt they were owed. Nixon’s concession denied them the presidency, and it opened the door to what Republicans consider a disaster so great that 40 years later, they’re just beginning to remedy it. Kennedy brought with him a renewed vision of an activist government, triggering four decades of right-wing resentment, as conservatives stood witness to the expansion of the Great Society. When Nixon surrendered, Republicans believed, he struck a silent and costly deal, and it was time for Gore to pay up.

Headstrong in his own belief that he won, Gore would not go along. Any hope of a Congress whose leadership was willing to reach across party lines died along with the hope of a quick concession from Gore. Republicans closed ranks, crying with one voice that the election was being stolen. Now, having somehow convinced Americans that Gore should give up and that Bush—who lost the popular election by well over 300,000 votes—is their candidate of choice, Republicans have no need to hedge their agenda.

Fortuitously, the planets have aligned to make things easy for them. High oil prices and the looming recession may combine to offer a remarkable opportunity for merging foreign and domestic policy in one fell swoop. The search for fossil fuel will force the United States both to strike more deals with foreign powers like the Arab states and former Soviet republics, and to drill for oil in places like the Alaskan wildlife preserve, putting environmental concerns on hold. Expanding oil operations abroad also means expanding the already large military presence in and around the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, back home, skyward prices for oil and gas—which have risen 40 percent since last year—could pitch the economy into a recession. Here, the Republicans are ready to pounce, with their grandiose tax breaks, worth $1.3 trillion, money they’ll argue will stimulate another Wall Street boom.

In this new Congress, Big Oil will rule, and Big Money will rule, and if liberals are fool enough to place one of their feel-good initiatives—national health care, anyone?—before the public, it’ll be smashed into pieces so tiny the Dems will need three administrations just to gather the scraps again.

Since the Newt Gingrich-led takeover of 1994, upstart right-wing Republicans have ruled the House of Representatives with little input from either their own party bosses or the Democrats. By and large, even nominal GOP leaders like Speaker Dennis Hastert have had little power.

These obstreperous, often obnoxious freshmen came from the backbenches, where they sat and stewed over what they believed was an outsized federal government, nursed by the wishy-washy politics of elder lions like Democrat Tip O’Neill. Far from civics-class congressmen in the making, the young backbenchers saw themselves as revolutionaries, out to smash the state. When they couldn’t get to the well of the House to speak, they turned to C-SPAN, where they built a national audience through a series of one-minute talks at the end of each day’s session. Out of this crucible came the Contract With America and eight years of liberal rollbacks.

Gingrich is gone, but the baton has been passed to an even more horrific crew, led by Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, and Phil Crane.

Majority whip DeLay is known as the Hammer; he earned the nickname for his ability to raise political funds, but he could just as well have gotten it for his ability to pound Hastert into line. The son of a drilling contractor, DeLay grew up in the oil fields of Venezuela and became a Houston bug exterminator before reaching Congress in 1984. His district is home to some of America’s biggest polluters—including Dow and Monsanto—and the local boy has never forgotten their interests.

DeLay, like Gingrich and the other backbenchers, wants to dismantle the federal government. For starters, he would abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, which he calls “the gestapo of government.” His step-by-step plan for doing this begins with repealing the Clean Air Act and cutting the agency’s budget by one third.

The Hammer has little patience for parliamentary niceties. He labels the Nobel Prize committee as “Swedish environmental extremists.” And never think DeLay will soften his views to be friendly with the other side. This is the guy who once called moderate Democrat David Obey of Wisconsin “a gutless chickenshit.”

Moderation is just not part of DeLay’s modus operandi. He has backed the teaching of creationism in public schools, abolishing the constitutional separation of church and state, adopting the Ten Commandments as a national slogan, and outlawing abortion and flag burning. Known for dedication to gutting the federal government, DeLay nonetheless would pump billions of tax dollars into the military for the Star Wars program.

When other members of Congress were trying to find some foothold on John McCain’s campaign-finance bandwagon, DeLay was looking for a way to get more campaign cash. The man who claims to have raised $2 million for GOP congressional candidates back in 1994 opposes any reform. “Money is the lifeblood of politics,” he says.

Christers love this pol, with his stated affection for the Constitution and the Bible. No wonder the Christian Coalition’s executive director compares the ever reliable Hammer to “a Domino’s Pizza delivery guy. It’s there in 30 minutes, or it’s free.”

There isn’t a social ill DeLay won’t lay at the feet of liberalism, which he believes sent women into the workplace and destroyed the nuclear family. The causes of youth violence, he says, have nothing to do with the guns being easily available, but with day care, the teaching of evolution, and “working mothers who take birth-control pills.”

Because he’s so far out there, DeLay overshadows House Majority Leader Dick Armey, another right-winger from Texas. Less interested in social questions than in fiscal policy, Armey was once a college economics professor, and remains a free-market buff, with a libertarian bent and a hankering for a national flat tax. Though no match for DeLay’s firebrand politicking, he can be almost as blunt, once telling the Democrats, “Your president is not that important for us.”

The third rising star, recently emerged from a stint in an alcohol rehab center, is Phil Crane, the conservative dreamboat from Illinois. This handsome, silver-tongued orator was the conservative favorite when he ran for president in the Republican primary in 1980. Right-wingers, who didn’t know much about Reagan and who worried that George Bush the First was a Commie and maybe even a traitor to boot, threw their votes to Crane.

Now dried out, he’s fighting hard to replace Bill Archer as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Before the election, Crane sought to ingratiate himself with his fellow Republicans by dipping into his own war chest to donate $650,000 to the party’s House campaign committee. He’s also honorary chair of the American Conservative Union, which has given dough to the GOP. Colleagues were plainly worried by Crane’s bout with beer, but as Jennifer Dunn, a Republican from Washington, put it delicately, “He’s been far more engaged” since switching to soft drinks.

Some liberal optimists look to the evenly split Senate for vestiges of bipartisanship. But that body is dominated by ancients like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, whose press office put out a December 11 bulletin on his health. “Senator Helms is not sick,” read the statement, published by The Washington Times. “He is not in the hospital. He is not on life support. He does not have terminal prostate cancer. He does not have pancreatic cancer. He is absolutely fine and will, God willing, be around to torment you for a long time to come.”

Stuck with all-but-defenseless leaders on Capitol Hill, the Democrats face the prospect of swiftly becoming irrelevant. Marshaling the Dems in the House is the opaque Dick Gephardt, the original Republicrat, now known mostly for his lack of both wit and eyebrows. The St. Louis pol wanted to be president, and now he’s hungry for the speakership in 2002. His whip is David Bonior, who has strong ties to labor and was chief of Congress’s anti-free-trade covey. Meek and easily squashed by Gephardt, Bonior is the one progressive figure in the Democratic leadership, which will likely leave him isolated in the Republican-dominated House.

Then comes the uninspiring Democratic front line: New York’s wheeling, dealing Charlie Rangel, Wisconsin’s David Obey, and California’s Henry Waxman.

There is little room for maneuvering here, and bad blood all around. The Republicans run the chamber with an iron hand, gaveling down Democratic opposition, shutting off committee hearings, and ramming one piece of legislation after another onto the floor with virtually no serious debate or consideration. But what has happened is that beneath the iron fist, the system has broken down, with members milling back and forth across the aisle, ignoring party dictates and forming their own ad hoc coalitions, like the one in 1998 between Cleveland’s Dennis Kucinich and Georgia conservative Bob Barr to stall the progress of free-trade negotiations, or the one Georgia congressman Charlie Norwood and Michigan Democrat John Dingell forged over a patient’s bill of rights.

The House has become a minefield, with chaos growing as the GOP majority is whittled away, and the right-wing leadership struggling to assert itself ever more aggressively against a rising tide of opposition. Just last week, Tom DeLay brought his storied hammer down on a 10-member coalition of liberal Republicans and moderate Democrats calling themselves New Dogs. So much for encouraging the next crop of upstarts.

With the presidency bruised from the election aftermath, and the courts suffering unprecedented criticism, all that’s left of strong government is a Congress dominated by those who would render even their own branch impotent. If you think this is a crisis, you’re right.

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