Anyone who disputes or claims not to remember Democratic Party and media charges that “the Bush administration is the most secretive in history” spent the past eight years emulating Rip Van Winkle or is in the throes of serious denial. Or, perhaps, is first cousin to an ostrich.
For those who doubt or feign ignorance, I offer the following from the transition Web site, Change.gov: “The Bush administration has been the most secretive, closed administration in American history. An Obama presidency will use cutting edge technologies to reverse this dynamic, creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation by America’s citizens.”
President Obama pledged also to end the angry partisanship in Washington — in all fairness, though, a promise also of Bill Clinton and George Bush. The political ill will prevailing limits the chance for success; however, he harms his cause with spiteful rhetoric aimed at Republicans, ill-advised stunts such as banning FOX News from a White House briefing and a propensity for blaming his predecessor in virtually every public address for the difficulties he inherited.
Admittedly, while many agree with this plaint, it is neither presidential nor dignified. This is the first time in my memory that a sitting president publicly disparaged his predecessor – let us hope he outgrows it. After all, did he not campaign as if he wanted the responsibility with all its warts and liabilities?
That this president did not create nor increase partisan bickering is a given: The last administration to operate with an air of cooperation and statesmanship was President Reagan’s. Much of that success stemmed from quality, adult leadership in Congress; the House Speaker was Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the Minority Leader was Bob Michel while the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders were Democrat Robert Byrd and Republicans Howard Baker and Bob Dole.
While fiercely partisan, these gentlemen understood cooperation, coordination and even compromise in fashioning legislation designed for the nation’s continued well-being. Historic presidential priority legislation passed with more Republican support than Democratic was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The North American Free Trade Act in 1994. The last occasion that President Bush enjoyed any real bipartisan support was in the Iraq War Resolution in 2002 – the Senate voted 77 to 23 and the House 296 to 156 to approve. That atmosphere of civil cooperation was short-lived.
This administration’s pledge of full transparency and ending the more odious elements of partisanship is doomed unless the president, the House speaker and the Senate majority leader practice as they have preached. Their endless blaming of the previous administration is a sham – it is time to deliver on their promise of change.
Among the president’s campaign pledges were promises to post legislation requiring his signature for five days online and not only make the health care debate public but also televise the negotiations on C-SPAN, only one of his first 11 signings (DTV Delay Act) made it online for the promised 5 days and the C-SPAN promise is not being honored.
In fairness, he cannot dictate the procedural functions of the legislature as that violates the separation of powers mandated by the Constitution. Moreover, transparency would threaten the introduction of earmarks, parochial amendments and other self-serving legislation. The five day White House rule would dictate a more careful and open process, one applauded in public but privately abhorred as old habits of chicanery die hard.
Nevertheless, as titular head of the party in power and owner of the bully pulpit, he has the capacity to influence the way legislative business is done – that it is accomplished openly and at the very least with a stab at across-the-aisle unity. Instead, abetted by his encouragement, this legislation is poised to bypass the traditional conference committee and exclude Republican participation, an unusual closed proceeding, ceding total power to the speaker, the majority leader and the White House.
This has been done before, but it is a rarity for a bill of this importance and controversy, particularly when the majority of the public does not support the legislation. C-SPAN network’s Brian Lamb has, in a letter to the leaders of both parties, offered to cover the negotiations live, thereby giving the president the opportunity to make good on his campaign promise. To date, the response can be characterized as “Thanks, but no thanks.”
That the Democrats have the power to send this bill to the president without Republican participation or input is not in dispute, nor is it a secret that both parties are at odds in the debate. But, is it wise to declare your opposition’s and the public’s doubts unfounded and sign it into law just because you can?
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Lord John Acton, 1887.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.