GOP leaders must squelch intraparty imperialism

December 07, 2004|By Douglas MacKinnon

WASHINGTON -- Pettiness, hubris and revenge are ugly words indeed, but apparently for Republican Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, all is fair in love, war and backroom dealing. Especially if your aim is to punish 21 fellow Republicans who dared to ignore warnings of fiscal reprisal.

The "crime" committed by these 21 GOP House members? Collectively, they sent a letter in support of $1.8 billion for Amtrak to the chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies, longtime Amtrak hater Ernest Istook.

According to The Hill newspaper and other Capitol Hill sources, Mr. Istook's revenge against his fellow Republicans was swift, secretive, painful and infuriating. Because of their support of Amtrak, Mr. Istook, without their knowledge, either entirely eliminated or drastically reduced the money in the $388 billion omnibus spending bill (the legislation that funds our nation) that was destined for their districts.

In other words, Mr. Istook chose to punish the people in these districts to teach a lesson to lawmakers who would defy his grand edicts. If this isn't a blatant abuse of power, then we need a new definition.

As to be expected, the 21 GOP lawmakers who were on the receiving end of the back of Mr. Istook's hand are beyond angry. Included among them are such powerful Republicans as Reps. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, Michael N. Castle of Delaware, Jim Leach of Iowa and Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey. It was even reported that Rep. John M. McHugh of New York, upon learning of Mr. Istook's action, came close to physically assaulting his fellow congressman.

One would think that Mr. Istook and his staff would at least have the good grace to be conciliatory and low-key after plunging knives into the backs of 21 colleagues. Wrong. They can't seem to contain their glee. Referring to the warning letter Mr. Istook sent to 32 House members in February not to support Amtrak, Mr. Istook's spokeswoman said, "Last year, they had 32 members sign the letter, and this year it was only 21, so some people got the message."

Message? Threat is the word. A vile threat that must be not only exposed but dealt with by the Republican leadership.

Mr. Istook will claim that he is but a conservative fiscal warrior looking out for taxpayers and his constituents. Such a claim rings hollow. His actions fly in the face of what the leader of his party, President Bush, and the full House deem appropriate. Worse, his irresponsible actions can directly impact the welfare of a number of Americans living near or below the poverty line who depend on Amtrak.

Since Mr. Istook was exposed for his ritual retribution against those who were seeking only to serve their constituents, things have gone from bad to worse.

One of Mr. Istook's aides, Richard E. Efford, recently identified himself as the person who inserted the invasive provision in the omnibus bill that would have allowed staff members on the Senate and House appropriations committees almost total access to the private tax returns of the American people. You know, the provision that caused Congress to come to a halt in an effort to derail the highly offensive provision.

Predictably, Mr. Istook claims ignorance of his staff member's actions. But those I spoke with on the Hill tell me it's highly unlikely that a staff member with 19 years of experience would do something so drastic without the blessing of his boss.

When House Republicans reclaimed the majority in 1994, I was on the sidelines cheering the outcome. We rightfully believed that after four decades in the majority, the Democrats had forgotten that they were there to serve the people, not themselves.

In the 10 years that my party has been in the majority, we seem to be in danger of replicating such hubris. Republicans tell me that there is a sense of "imperialism" settling in among some GOP members, and they fear that we are becoming what we defeated in 1994.

The reprehensible actions of Mr. Istook would seem to confirm that belief. Maybe it's well past time that the very able Republican House leadership call for a closed-door session to remind any GOP brats and egomaniacs that they serve at the pleasure of the American people and that, oh by the way, our nation is at war.

Douglas MacKinnon, press secretary to former Sen. Bob Dole, is a former White House and Pentagon official and an author.

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