Richard Reeves

The Perils of Washington Totalitarianism

DURHAM, N.C. -- Someone in the audience at the North Carolina Festival of the Book asked Rep. David Price, a former Duke professor who has written extensively about the workings of Congress, what difference it would make if Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in November.

The theoretician-turned-practitioner, a Democrat who represents the Chapel Hill-Durham area, answered in two words: "Subpoena power!"

There was some applause, but I was not sure everyone there understood what he meant. This is it: The only way to restore constitutional checks and balances in Washington before 2008 is for the opposition to win one house of Congress and have the power to call witnesses at public hearings and ask, under oath:

"What the hell is going on here?"

What is going on in the White House? The Defense Department? The CIA and the NSA? With gasoline prices? Along the border between California and Mexico? In Baghdad? In New Orleans? With Jack Abramoff and the K Street Gang? In Congress itself?

Or, who is listening to your phone calls? Are your taxes being used to teach torture techniques to your sons and daughters? Are the glaciers melting?

We'll be the last to know.

The nation flies blind when we have determined one-party government. That can and has happened in both parties over the centuries, but this White House is a particularly tough bunch, talking freedom around the world and taking it away at home. President Bush essentially has veto power over the Republican automatons in the Congress, and they are the ones who have the power (generally unused) to issue subpoenas and question officials and witnesses who might embarrass "The Decider."

There is a nasty whiff of totalitarianism in Washington today, with a closed administration that seems to spend most of its time and effort trying to prevent the Congress, press and people from getting any information at all about decision-making. There is something comical about "The Decider" declaring only he decides, but tragedy is in the wings as both friends and adversaries try to see over or under the walls around his decision-making.

Rep. Price mentioned another symbol of the declining role of his institution. The House is scheduled to meet for just 97 days this year, which is 11 days less than the "Do-Nothing Congress" Harry S. Truman successfully used as his whipping boy to win the 1948 presidential election. I realize that there are those out there who believe life would be better if Congress never met -- the president seems to be one of them -- but the men who wrote the Constitution had these inconvenient notions about separation of powers.

Subpoenas -- testimony under oath with the threat of jail for perjury or contempt -- are essential to open government. In fact, the few things we are learning these days about this administration is information coming from prosecutors who do have subpoena power.

Questions about Abramoff and other lobbyists came to public attention because of investigations by a prosecutor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Rep. "Duke" Cunningham of California was forced to resign his seat when a prosecutor in San Diego read a newspaper story about his real-estate dealings with defense contractors and subpoenaed the congressman and contractors for a showdown that ended with a guilty plea. The action that caused the resignation of Rep. Tom DeLay was initiated by a local prosecutor in Texas. The process that began with the naming of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent -- and could end up with Bush assistants in jail -- was the result of sworn testimony gathered by a special prosecutor from Chicago.

All that leads to an ironic conclusion as the 2006 congressional campaigns begin. The Democrats, the opposition too loyal, have acted like whining wimps and wusses, whipped into sullen silence by a White House questioning their patriotism -- and so we need more Democrats in Congress.

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