Legislative Lowdown: Week of October 17

With Republican voters unenthusiastic about the President’s nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and increasingly disillusioned by the incessant growth of government, it’s appropriate to ask whether the Republicans’ reign in Congress is in jeopardy.

In a recent memo sent to his House Republican colleagues, the savvy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (the campaign arm for House Republicans), Rep. Tom Reynolds (R.-N.Y.), addressed these concerns. “Winning campaigns,” he counseled, “are about nuts and bolts, the fundamentals—resources, strong candidates, a message that resonates locally, and well-run campaigns.”

Seven Seats

Reynolds notes several inherent strengths House Republicans enjoy, including a decided advantage in fundraising and the remarkably large number of safe seats that appear beyond the reach of Democratic challengers. Two respected congressional observers, Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg, estimate that more than 90% of all House seats are currently safe. “A level,” Cook says, “that has not been seen before.” By comparison, in the politically tempestuous year of 1994, Cook identified 73 “toss-up” House seats. Today, he believes there are only seven such seats.

Reynolds has hitched his horse to a questionable premise, however. “Congressional campaigns,” he argues, “are almost always decided on local and pocketbook issues; rarely are they decided on national issues.” He touts recent legislation with presumed strong parochial appeal, such as this summer’s pork-laden highway and energy bills, as evidence that House Republicans have met this challenge.

But even a cursory review of the editorial reaction to the highway bill suggests that upon returning home for their summer recess, lawmakers weren’t exactly raised upon the shoulders of their gleeful constituents and paraded triumphantly down Main Street. Newspapers that endorsed President Bush for re-election or otherwise lean in a Republican direction decried the highway bill for its heavy component of pork projects. The San Diego Union Tribune, Omaha World-Herald, San Antonio Express-News, the Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., the Indianapolis Star and the Tampa Tribune excoriated Bush and his Republican allies in Congress for “laying claim to Lyndon Johnson’s legacy” and “raiding the Treasury for the purpose of bringing extra goodies home.”

So, do Republicans prosper politically when they organize their legislative agenda around former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s “all politics is local” approach to governing? Perhaps not. According to a poll released shortly after the last midterm election, in 2002, 52% of voters (and an even larger percentage of Republicans) said they based their congressional voting decision on the candidate’s stand on major national issues. Only 42% said they looked primarily to the candidate’s position on parochial concerns.

Clearly, Republicans need to heed the mood of the electorate at this important juncture. According to Gallup, the President’s support among Republicans has fallen 10 points, from an average of 92% to 82%. Other recent polls have found that his Republican support has dipped below 80%. Similarly, an uncomfortably large percentage of Republicans tell pollsters they’re unhappy with Congress—with the dissidents reaching as high as 45% in one Gallup survey earlier this year.

Trivial vs. Important

The crosscurrents of national and parochial politics have been evident in the backroom negotiations over the Patriot Act. Senate negotiators, especially those who represent small states, have raised strong objections to the principled stand by their House counterparts over the formula that determines funding for the first responders’ grant program. The 9/11 Commission recommended that Congress allocate these funds solely on the basis of security risk and vulnerability to terrorist attacks, rather than spread taxpayer dollars far and wide in accordance with shortsighted political concerns.

In June, the House essentially adopted the commission’s recommendation, but now this rare example of lawmakers’ demonstrating an ability to opt for the important over the trivial faces a stern test. Conservatives hope the two lead House negotiators—House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R.-Wis.) and Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R.-N.Y.)—prevail.