Lord Acton’s famous observation that power tends to corrupt has been lamentably borne out by the recent history of the Republican Party. When it finally gained control of both the White House and Congress, it turned away from some of the very principles that had secured it majority status.
Yet Acton’s axiom has not been reflected in the behavior of at least one Republican leader in the House of Representatives. He is Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who has served for the past six years as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and whom the editors of Human Events have chosen as Man of the Year for 2006.
First elected in 1978, Sensenbrenner has served in Congress for almost three decades without setting aside his core principles—and they are decidedly conservative principles. He is a fiscal conservative. He is a pro-life, pro-marriage social conservative. He has been hawkish, but not reckless, in his approach to foreign affairs and national security. And he has a profound respect for the division of powers built into the Constitution.
In this Congress, Sensenbrenner valiantly spurred House Republicans to use their power as the majority party to thwart President Bush’s illegal-alien amnesty plan. At the same time, he effectively promoted serious border security and immigration reform proposals of his own.
Sensenbrenner was able to do this because he has never believed, or acted as if, Congress ought to be a rubber stump for the President. Not when Clinton was President. Not when either Bush was President. Not even when Reagan was President.
In fact, in 1986, when President Reagan made an uncharacteristic mistake and supported the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, which granted an amnesty to illegal aliens, Sensenbrenner voted against it. He feared that it would lead to a new influx of illegal aliens across our Southern border. History proved him right.
In 1990, when President George H.W. Bush cut a deal with congressional Democrats and broke his “Read My Lips, No New Taxes” pledge, Sensenbrenner adamantly opposed the tax increase.
“What is really a shame is that it is all unnecessary,” Sensenbrenner said then, “because, if Congress had just held the federal growth rate of spending to 4% a year for each year of the next five years, we could balance the budget without raising taxes on anyone.”
Sensenbrenner practiced what he preached. In every year since 1992, he has received a grade of “A” from the National Taxpayers Union, which scores every vote cast in Congress that affects taxes, spendng and debt. In each of those years, he has also ranked among the NTU’s Top Ten fiscal conservatives in the House. Sensenbrenner’s commitment to small government has been so steady that even when he committed perhaps the one great fiscal sin of his career—voting for the Medicare prescription-drug plan in 2003—he still managed to rank as the NTU’s No. 9 fiscal conservative in the House.
“Jim Sensenbrenner has been a tireless advocate for taxpayers,” says NTU President John Berthoud, a contributing editor to Human Events. “His record in support of tax relief and cutting wasteful spending is almost unmatched. Very few other members of Congress have ever compiled a comparable record in NTU’s ratings. Wisconsin voters—and indeed all Americans—have greatly benefited from Jim Sensenbrenner’s principled service in the United States Congress.”
While some congressional Republicans have recently committed ethical lapses similar to those they once decried Democrats for committing, The Almanac of American Politics rightly calls Sensenbrenner “a stickler for ethics.” House rules require that members report their assets only in broad ranges of value. Sensenbrenner, by contrast, has gone to the House floor in each of the 28 years he has served and submitted for publication in the Congressional Record a detailed listing of everything he owns as well as all the taxes he has paid.
He lists every asset down to the penny.
His commitment to integrity in government service showed brightly during the Clinton impeachment trial. In the face of ridicule from the liberal press and both Republican and Democratic senators, Sensenbrenner opened the arguments for the House impeachment managers on the Senate floor. At the trial’s end, he summed up why Clinton should be removed.
“When this trial began four long weeks ago, we said that what was on trial was the truth and the rule of law,” Sensenbrenner defiantly told the Senate. “That has not changed, despite the lengthy legal arguments you have heard. The truth is still the truth and a lie is still a lie. And the rule of law should apply to everyone no matter what excuses are made by the President’s defenders.”
The strength of Sensenbrenner’s convictions—his stubbornness in the defense of carefully thought-through right-minded positions—is what enabled him in the 109th Congress to stop President Bush’s illegal-alien amnesty.
He simply would not let it through the House.
Thanks to a coalition led by Teddy Kennedy and John McCain, the Bush proposal sailed through the Senate. But then it ran smack into the U.S.S. Sensenbrenner—and sank.
Sensenbrenner also achieved real progress on immigration policy in the last Congress. He managed to enact serious reforms—despite President Bush’s manifest reluctance to support them.
He pushed through the REAL ID Act that prohibits states from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens if the states want their driver’s licenses to be accepted for federal purposes such as boarding airplanes. He made sure Congress authorized a doubling of the Border Patrol, tripling of the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and tripling the number of beds available for detaining illegal aliens. He was a leading proponent of the law sponsored by Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R.-N.Y.) and long advocated by Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) that authorized 700 miles of double fencing along the Mexican border.
When President Bush’s budget request failed to fully fund the fiscal-year 2007 installments on the authorized increases in Border Patrol, ICE agents and detention beds, Sensenbrenner worked with other Republican leaders to make sure $2 billion was added to the Homeland Security appropriation for those purposes—and to fund next year’s construction on the border fence.
He also sponsored and won House passage of an enforcement-only immigration reform bill designed not only to secure the border but to turn off the jobs magnet that attracts illegal aliens across the border. This bill would have subjected employers of illegal aliens to serious sanctions enforced by the soon-to-be-increased ranks of ICE agents.
Sensenbrenner’s House bill proved to be precisely the immovable object that sank the Senate-White House amnesty bill.
When Human Events asked him last week if Americans could count on him to be in the forefront of the fight for immigration enforcement in the future, he said: “Jim Sensenbrenner is not going to go away, even though we are in the minority.”
Had more Republicans in the White House and on Capitol Hill over the last few years shared Jim Sensenbrenner’s readiness to fight for principle, the GOP might still be running Congress.
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter