Matt Taibbi’s new article in Rolling Stone, “The Worst Congress Ever,” is only tangentially connected to Russia. Many of you will remember as the co-founder of the Moscow expat weekly, the Exile. I always felt that Taibbi was too smart for its sophomoric antics. But I think cutting his journalistic teeth on reporting on Russia in the late 1990s prepared him for when he turned his talents to American politics.
Nothing says this more than “The Worst Congress Ever.” Unlike many of his craft, he cuts through the bullshit and reveals Congressional Republicans for what they really are: incompetent, lazy, and corrupt assholes that have driven American democracy into the ground. It is difficult to even provide a sample from the article because there are just too many gems to choose from. I’ll just pick the few times he uses his experience in Russia as a comparative.
It is no big scoop that the majority party in Congress has always found ways of giving the shaft to the minority. But there is a marked difference in the size and the length of the shaft the Republicans have given the Democrats in the past six years. There has been a systematic effort not only to deny the Democrats any kind of power-sharing role in creating or refining legislation but to humiliate them publicly, show them up, pee in their faces. Washington was once a chummy fraternity in which members of both parties golfed together, played in the same pickup basketball games, probably even shared the same mistresses. Now it is a one-party town — and congressional business is conducted accordingly, as though the half of the country that the Democrats represent simply does not exist.
American government was not designed for one-party rule but for rule by consensus — so this current batch of Republicans has found a way to work around that product design. They have scuttled both the spirit and the letter of congressional procedure, turning the lawmaking process into a backroom deal, with power concentrated in the hands of a few chiefs behind the scenes. This reduces the legislature to a Belarus-style rubber stamp, where the opposition is just there for show, human pieces of stagecraft — a fact the Republicans don’t even bother to conceal.
“I remember one incident very clearly — I think it was 2001,” says Winslow Wheeler, who served for twenty-two years as a Republican staffer in the Senate. “I was working for [New Mexico Republican] Pete Domenici at the time. We were in a Budget Committee hearing and the Democrats were debating what the final result would be. And my boss gets up and he says, ‘Why are you saying this? You’re not even going to be in the room when the decisions are made.’ Just said it right out in the open.”
For similarly petulant moves by a committee chair, one need look no further than the Ways and Means Committee, where Rep. Bill Thomas — a pugnacious Californian with an enviable ego who was caught having an affair with a pharmaceutical lobbyist — enjoys a reputation rivaling that of the rotund Sensenbrenner. The lowlight of his reign took place just before midnight on July 17th, 2003, when Thomas dumped a “substitute” pension bill on Democrats — one that they had never read — and informed them they would be voting on it the next morning. Infuriated, Democrats stalled by demanding that the bill be read out line by line while they recessed to a side room to confer. But Thomas wanted to move forward — so he called the Capitol police to evict the Democrats.
Thomas is also notorious for excluding Democrats from the conference hearings needed to iron out the differences between House and Senate versions of a bill. According to the rules, conferences have to include at least one public, open meeting. But in the Bush years, Republicans have managed the conference issue with some of the most mind-blowingly juvenile behavior seen in any parliament west of the Russian Duma after happy hour. GOP chairmen routinely call a meeting, bring the press in for a photo op and then promptly shut the proceedings down. “Take a picture, wait five minutes, gavel it out — all for show” is how one Democratic staffer described the process. Then, amazingly, the Republicans sneak off to hold the real conference, forcing the Democrats to turn amateur detective and go searching the Capitol grounds for the meeting. “More often than not, we’re trying to figure out where the conference is,” says one House aide.
In one legendary incident, Rep. Charles Rangel went searching for a secret conference being held by Thomas. When he found the room where Republicans closeted themselves, he knocked and knocked on the door, but no one answered. A House aide compares the scene to the famous “Land Shark” skit from Saturday Night Live, with everyone hiding behind the door afraid to make a sound. “Rangel was the land shark, I guess,” the aide jokes. But the real punch line came when Thomas finally opened the door. “This meeting,” he informed Rangel, “is only open to the coalition of the willing.”
Now anyone walking away from reading Taibbi’s piece still believing that there is still democracy in America is still stuck on gazing at the trees despite the forest. As Taibbi closes, and I think he is right, “One could go on and on about the scandals and failures of the past six years; to document them all would take . . . well, it would take more than ninety-three fucking days, that’s for sure. But you can boil the whole sordid mess down to a few basic concepts. Sloth. Greed. Abuse of power. Hatred of democracy. Government as a cheap backroom deal, finished in time for thirty-six holes of the world’s best golf. And brains too stupid to be ashamed of any of it. If we have learned nothing else in the Bush years, it’s that this Congress cannot be reformed. The only way to change it is to get rid of it.”