CNN Special Advocates For Divided Government; Features Dan Rostenkowski as Expert
CNN’s latest political special, "Broken Government: The Do Nothing Congress," featured Dan Rostenkowski as a quasi-ethics expert, agitation for divided government, and general trashing of the Republicans in Congress. Rostenkowski, for those too young to remember is the former Democratic Congressman who ended up being expelled from the House after being accused of, among other things, charging thousands of dollars worth of gifts to a congressional account. (CNN couldn’t find time to mention his transgressions until 34 minutes into the program.) But, mail fraud and prison apparently aren’t an impediment to being an expert on all things wrong with the GOP. Host Ed Henry used Rostenkowski as a springboard to call for divided government:
Rostenkowski: "The secret of my success, I think, is that, the 14 years that I was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, 12 of them were under Republicans."
Henry: "It seems logical that divided government, Democrats in charge of one branch, Republicans running the other, might cause gridlock. But, when you think about it, it actually seems to produce better results."
Norman Ornstein (American Enterprise Institute) : "I have come to the conclusion, reluctantly -- and I don't have a partisan dog in the fight -- that divided government now may be a better way to go, simply because the incentive, if you're leading an institution that you -- in which you share the responsibility for governing, is to try and make your institution work, because the onus is going to be on you to do so."
What interesting timing? It’s unlikely that CNN had such an appreciation for divided government in October of 1994. Ed Henry opened the special, which aired at 8p.m. on October 23, by noting just how horrible things are in Congress:
Henry: "The 1994 Republican revolutionaries encouraged lawmakers to leave their families back home, and not be seduced by the corrosive culture of Washington. Today, most lawmakers can't seem to get out of town fast enough. This year, they will work less than any time since 1948, when Harry Truman famously blasted a do-nothing, good-for-nothing Congress.
The ugly little secret is that today's Congress is no longer in the business of governing. In fact, it's hardly even in business at all. It may shock you to learn that Congress only works about two days a week. I'm Ed Henry. And I covered Congress for more than a decade. It's never been worse than it is right now. In the next hour, we're going to show you what members of Congress are really doing with their time on your dime, and how principled politicians, like Joel Hefley, just can't take it anymore."
Hefley, a retiring Congressman from Colorado, is one of several Republicans featured in the special. However, the reason for their interviews seems to be not for the sake of balance, but having GOP members who will bash their party. Also, Henry’s opening statement asserted that "it’s never been worse than it is right now." Well, what convenient timing for both the cable network and the Democratic Party. A few minutes later, Trent Lott talked to CNN and complained about the low number of days that House members actually work:
Henry: "Former Majority Leader Trent Lott recalls senators routinely lining up in front of his office, begging for their four-day weekends."
Lott: "Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. They would just -- oh, please, let me get out of here on Thursday night. I would rather stay until midnight on Thursday, so I can catch the 7:30 flight out. Or, please, don't have votes after about 7:30, so, I can catch that. And some of them would get pretty aggressive about it."
Henry: "A recent ‘New York Times’ poll found most Americans can't name a single major piece of legislation that made its way through this Congress. Social Security reform? Didn't happen. Tougher immigration laws? Nope. Tighter ethics standards? Not a chance. In the 1960s and '70s, Congress met an average of 161 days a year. In the '80s and '90s, that number dropped to 139 days. This year, Congress will probably end up working just about 100 days."
Rostenkowski: "It isn't a legislative process anymore. Work one day a week? Work a day-and-a- half a week? I mean, it's crazy. It's just crazy."
This issue, spending, and other problems raised during the hour, are important. But as the program progressed, it became clear who was to be blamed for the impasse. Further, it again needs to be pointed out how odd it is to feature Rostenkowski as an expert on what’s wrong with Congress.
At 8:06p.m, Henry zeroed in on his main thesis: The Republican Revolution of 1994 quickly became obsessed only with money:
Henry: "The 1994 Republican revolutionaries mapped out a plan to keep their majority, outmaneuvering and outspending the Democratic opposition."
Linda Killian (author): "Literally from the first year that they were in office, the leadership would talk to them about, ‘How much money did you raise this week?’ and keep a tally."
Henry: "Tom DeLay was the architect known on the Hill as ‘The Hammer.’ The Texan pushed members to raise ever more money. Committee assignments and chairmanships, the currency of congressional leaders, were essentially auctioned off, going to those who raised the most money for the party."
Joel Hefley: "You almost have to run a campaign for chairmanship, rather than letting your hard work speak for itself".
Henry: "The permanent campaign kept lawmakers on the road, raising checks like these pouring into a major political lobbying group, and it elevated partisanship above personal relationships. In 2004, on a trip home to South Dakota, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle got a big surprise."
Daschle: "And somebody said, ‘Well, you know, I hope you will talk to Senator Frist, who is coming out here in a few weeks.’ And I said, "Senator Frist is coming out?’ And he said, ‘Yes, yes.’So, I came back and asked Senator Frist if there was any truth to that, and he said that -- that he wasn't sure yet."
Henry: "Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist did indeed go to South Dakota that year, and campaigned against the leader of the Senate minority. Trent Lott, who seethed when Frist took his job as Republican leader, was stunned."
At this point, the special had highlighted a grab bag of Republican offenses. They allowed money to corrode them and, by having Bill Frist campaign in South Dakota, destroyed the civility of the Senate. Yet, oddly, the next person featured in the segment is Congressman John Murtha. And he thinks the problem is that President Bush isn’t being challenged enough. CNN’s Ed Henry appeared to agree:
Henry: "Frist defended his decision, and the gamble paid off. Come November, Tom Daschle was out. One brisk autumn morning, on the campaign trail, Democratic Congressman John Murtha is rolling down I-25. What America needs, he says, is a Congress willing to speak truth to power."
John Murtha: "A Congress who will confront and -- and -- and have hearings, and -- and -- and do the things we need to do, in order to change the direction of the country."
Henry: "But, with a White House set on expanding the power of the executive, Capitol Hill has become little more than a rubber stamp for President Bush."
A short time later, at 8:13p.m., Murtha was given more time to state the case for confrontation:
Murtha: "When I spoke out November of last year, I was way behind the American public. The public was way ahead of me. They understood that something was wrong, that -- and the Congress was not standing up to this President."
Henry: "Murtha, a highly decorated former Marine, thinks voters are tired of timidity."
Murtha: "They want somebody that is willing to speak to power, they're willing to stand up and speak to power, not sit back and just rubber-stamp what -- whatever the administration wants."
Henry: "In 2001, for the first time in nearly 50 years, Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. And it's become clear, the President runs the show."
Ornstein: "The Republicans in Congress fundamentally see themselves as lieutenants in the President's army."
Henry: "Congress gave the President a free hand and an open checkbook to launch the war in Iraq."
Oh, and what was Mr. Murtha doing when he made these comments? The Congressman appeared in Colorado to campaign for a Democratic candidate in a tight House race. So, apparently confrontation and partisanship are okay, in certain situations.
Finally, at 8:33p.m., Mr. Henry felt the need to disclose Dan Rostenkowski’s unfortunate legal entanglements.
Henry: "In 1994 Dan Rostenkowski's world came crashing down."
Rostenkowski (in file footage): "I have no comment to make."
Henry: "Federal prosecutors accused him of charging tens of thousands of dollars in personal gifts to his personal account at the Congressional store and padding his payroll with phantom employees."
Rostenkowski: "I have committed no crime and have engaged in no illegal or unethical conduct."
Henry: "The Congressman was indicted, and the Gingrich revolutionaries held him up as a symbol of all that was corrupt in the Democratic majority, and that November voters threw Dan Rostenkowski out of Congress and the Democrats out of power. Two years later, Rostenkowski took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 17 months in prison."
Rostenkowski: "I mismanaged the funds that I had, and, you know, it was that I was giving things away. But listen, that's history."
To be fair, the special did mention a few Democratic transgressions, such as the fact that Republicans weren’t treated that well when they weren’t in power. Also, Democrat Jim Traficant’s woes are described. The show relied more heavily on the problems of Republicans, however, such as Tom Delay and Randy "Duke" Cunningham. At the close of the program, Dan Rostenkowski nicely summed up what CNN wanted its viewers to know:
Henry: "December 2000 on the north side of Chicago, Dan Rostenkowski gets a Christmas present from Bill Clinton, a full pardon."
Rostenkowski: "The fact that the chief executive of this country recognized that I'm making a contribution is very rewarding."
Henry: "After all those years, the neighborhood embraced the old rascal again."
Rostenkowski: "I walked down the streets, and people always give me a thumbs up, which is heartwarming. Thank you very much."
Henry: "And Rostenkowski walked on, knowing that in the book of Congress, he's but a chapter and a new one will soon be written."
Rostenkowski: "The shoe is now on the other foot. The rascals are the Republicans, and I think you're going to see a change."
So, there you have it. The "reformed" rascal has spoken and predicts GOP doom. One hopes that the network will one day find a home for William Jefferson to speak about campaign finance reform.