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Congress announces the creation of a special counsel to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. Lawrence Walsh is named the special prosecutor in charge of the investigation. (New York Times 11/19/1987) Walsh, a retired federal judge, later says that he is worried from the outset about the potential for what he calls a “carnival atmosphere” surrounding the hearings. In creating the special counsel and the concurrent Congressional investigation (see January 6-7, 1987), Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV) want to head off any possibility of impeachment. “That is the last thing I wanted to do,” Wright later recalls. “Ronald Reagan had only two years left in his [second and final] term. I was not going to allow a procedure that would lead to his impeachment in his final year in office.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 67-68)
Both the House and Senate name special committees to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. (New York Times 11/19/1987)
Avoiding Impeachment - The two investigations will quickly merge into one joint, unwieldy committee. Neither Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) nor Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV) have any intention of allowing the investigations to become impeachment hearings against President Reagan (see December 19, 1986). They decide to combine the House and Senate investigations in the hopes that the investigation will move more quickly and limit the damage to the presidency. They envision a bipartisan committee made up of wise, sober lawmakers able to prevent the investigation from becoming a witch hunt. Wright will remember telling the Republican minority leadership, “You appoint and we appoint and we can maintain some control.”
Choosing Chairmen, Members - Byrd chooses Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), a decorated World War II veteran who had served on the Senate Watergate Committee (see February 7, 1973) and the Senate Intelligence Committee. In turn, Inouye names Warren Rudman (R-NH), a former federal prosecutor, as his vice chairman, promising to share all the powers and responsibilities of the chairmanship with him. According to authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, Rudman “would overshadow” the self-effacing Inouye. For the House side, Wright names conservative Lee Hamilton (D-IN) to chair that portion of the committee. Both Hamilton and Inouye have a deep conviction that to accomplish anything of lasting import, decisions must be arrived at in a bipartisan fashion. Wright names several powerful Democratic committee chairmen to the House committee; their responsibilities as committee chairmen will interfere with their ability to devote the proper time and effort to the investigation. House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-IN) chooses his members with a very different agenda in mind. Michel, himself a relatively moderate Republican, chooses Dick Cheney (R-WY) as the ranking member of the House investigation. Cheney is well-informed about intelligence and foreign affairs, and, in Dubose and Bernstein’s words, “ruthlessly partisan.” In addition, Cheney will function as the White House “mole” on the committee, alerting White House officials as to the thrust and direction of the investigation and allowing them time to prepare accordingly. Michel salts the House committee with right-wing ideologues, including Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Bill McCollum (R-FL). Few of Michel’s House committee members have any intention of pursuing the facts behind Iran-Contra; instead, they are bent on undermining the Democrats on the committee and ensuring that the committee achieves few, if any, of its goals.
Loss of Leverage - From the outset, Wright and Byrd’s opposition to any consideration of presidential impeachment, no matter what evidence is unearthed, loses them their biggest advantage in the proceedings. Not only will committee Republicans feel more confident in pulling the investigation away from sensitive and potentially embarrassing matters, the committee will ignore important evidence of Reagan’s own involvement in the Iran-Contra decision-making process, including recordings of telephone conversations showing Reagan discussing financing the Contras with foreign leaders. Hamilton in particular will be an easy mark for the ideologues in the Republican group of committee members; his biggest worry is whether Reagan “would be able to govern” after the investigation, and his relentless bipartisanship makes him easy for the committee Republicans to manipulate and sway. As for the Republicans, even fellow GOP committee member Rudman will become disgusted with their naked partisanship and their refusal to pursue the facts. “It was obvious that Dick Cheney and others were more interested in protecting the president than in finding out what had happened,” Rudman will later recall. Dubose and Bernstein add that Cheney has another agenda as well: preserving the powers of the presidency against Congressional encroachment.
Cheney's Influence - Cheney has always succeeded in lulling his opposition with his unruffled demeanor. He is able to do the same thing on the investigative committee. “We totally misread the guy,” a Democratic staffer later recalls. “We thought he was more philosophical than political.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 68-69)
The Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress’s joint Iran-Contra investigation begin meetings to discuss the logistics of the upcoming public hearings (see May 5, 1987). Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) later recalls that House committee chairman “Lee Hamilton and I bent over backwards to be fair to the Republicans.” Many of the committee Republicans are not predisposed to return the favor. Moderate Republican Warren Rudman (R-NH), the co-chairman of the Senate committee, recalls that deep divides were forming between the committee’s moderate Republicans and the more hardline Republicans led by Dick Cheney (R-WY). “The meetings were very, very intensive,” Rudman will recall. Cheney helps put together the Republican committee members’ staff, and includes a number of hardline Reagan loyalists: the Justice Department’s Bruce Fein; the former assistant general counsel to the CIA, David Addington; and others. Notably, it is during the Iran-Contra hearings where Cheney and Addington form their lasting professional association.
Artificial Deadline - The first battle is over the length of the hearings. Cheney’s hardliners want the hearings over with quickly—“like tomorrow,” one former staffer recalls. Hamilton will recall: “Did I know Dick wanted to shorten it? Yes, I knew that.” Committee Democrats, fearful of extending the proceedings into the 1988 presidential campaign and thusly being perceived as overly partisan, agree to an artificial ten-month deadline to complete the investigation and issue a final report. Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein later write that the deadline is “an invitation to the administration to stall while simultaneously burying the committee under mountains of useless information.” When, in the fall of 1987, the committee receives large amounts of new information, such as White House backup computer files, Cheney’s hardliners will succeed in insisting that the committee adhere to the deadline.
Jousting with the Special Prosecutor - The committee also has trouble co-existing with the special prosecutor’s concurrent investigation (see December 19, 1986). The special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, wants a long, intensive investigation culminating in a round of prosecutions. The committee worries that in light of Walsh’s investigation, key witnesses like Oliver North and John Poindexter would refuse to testify before the committee, and instead plead the Fifth Amendment. Rudman and committee counsel Arthur Liman want Walsh to quickly prosecute North for obstruction of justice based on North’s “shredding party” (see November 21-25, 1986). Rudman believes that he can get his Republican colleagues to agree to defer their investigation until after North’s trial. But Walsh declines. Rudman later says: “Walsh might have been more successful if he had followed our suggestion.… But he had this grand scheme of conspiracy.” As such, the committee has a difficult choice: abort the investigation or grant North immunity from prosecution so he can testify. Cheney and his hardliners, and even some Democrats, favor not having North testify in deference to his upcoming prosecution. “People were all over the place on that one,” Rudman will recall. Hamilton is the strongest proponent of immunity for North. “He believed that North had information no one else had,” a staffer will recall. Hamilton and the moderate Republicans are more interested in finding the details of the Iran-Contra affair rather than preparing for criminal prosecutions. The committee eventually compromises, and defers the testimony of North and Poindexter until the end of the investigation. Another committee staffer later recalls, “Hamilton was so fair-minded and balanced that in order to get agreements, he gave ground in areas where he shouldn’t have.”
North Deal 'Dooms' Investigation - Dubose and Bernstein later write, “The deal the committee struck with North’s canny lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, doomed Walsh’s investigation and the hearings.” The committee offers North “use immunity,” a guarantee that his testimony cannot be used against him in future prosecutions. The committee also agrees, unwisely, to a series of further caveats: they will not depose North prior to his testimony, his testimony will be strictly limited in duration, the committee will not recall North for further testimony, and he will not have to produce documents to be used in his testimony until just days before his appearance. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 70-72, 77)
A group of Nicaraguan Contra leaders walks unexpectedly into the office of Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) and demands a meeting. They want to discuss prisoners being held by the Sandinista government. Wright is perplexed, but agrees to see them.
'Reagan-Wright' Peace Plan - Wright has engineered a peace program between the US and Nicaragua known as “Reagan-Wright,” a program very unpopular with right-wing Republicans both in the White House and in Congress. White House officials such as President Reagan’s national security affairs assistant Colin Powell and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams have attempted to derail the program by trying to persuade other Central American leaders to come out against Nicaragua and thereby undermine the peace talks. But the program has progressed, largely because of Wright’s tireless efforts and the cooperation of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez (who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts). Wright had informed the leaders of the different factions in Nicaragua, Contras and Sandinistas alike, that his door was always open to them.
Enemy in House - Wright does not realize that he has an implacable enemy in powerful House member Dick Cheney (R-WY). Cheney is offended by what he sees as Wright’s encroachment on powers that should be reserved for the executive branch alone, and has devised a campaign to further undermine Wright.
Meeting between Wright and Contras - When the Contra leaders meet with Wright, the speaker has already informed the CIA that its agents who were fomenting civil unrest and provoking the Sandinistas were violating the law. He tells the Contras that they can no longer expect CIA agitators to work on their behalf. When news of the meeting gets back to Cheney and Abrams, they are, in Wright’s recollection, “furious.”
Washington Times Claims Wright Leaked Classified Information - The State Department steers the angry Contra delegation to the offices of the right-wing Washington Times, where they tell the editorial staff what Wright had told them—that the CIA is illegally provoking unrest in Nicaragua. A week later, Wright is floored when a Times reporter confronts him with accusations that he has leaked classified CIA information to foreign nationals.
Security Breach Allegation - Wright’s defense—he had told the Contras nothing they didn’t already know—does not placate Cheney, who immediately calls for a thorough investigation of Wright’s “security breach.” Speaking as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Cheney says Wright has raised serious “institutional questions that go to the integrity of the House, to the integrity of the oversight process in the area of intelligence, and to the operation of the Intelligence Committee.”
Set-Up - An investigative reporter from Newsday, Roy Gutman, learns from State Department sources that Wright had been set up by Cheney and Abrams. State Department officials sent the Contras to the Washington Times with specific instructions to leak the CIA content of their discussion with Wright to the editors. But Gutman’s discovery has little impact on the situation.
Ethics Complaint - Cheney, with House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-IL), files a complaint with the House Ethics Committee and demands an investigation by the Intelligence Committee, claiming Wright has compromised US intelligence operations in Central America. Throughout the process, neither Michel nor Cheney give Wright any warning of the complaints before they are filed.
Pressure from Cheney - Looking back, Wright will be more disturbed by Michel’s actions than by Cheney’s. He considered Michel a friend, and was amazed that Michel went along with Cheney in blindsiding him. Michel will later apologize to Wright, and say that Cheney had pressured him so much that he went along with Cheney in filing the ethics complaint without telling Wright. One aspect that Michel does not explain is why, as House minority leader, he would put the stamp of approval of the House leadership on the complaint, raising it to a much higher level than a complaint from a rank-and-file representative like Cheney. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 60-62)
The co-founder and editor of the American Prospect, Robert Kuttner, subjects the 2002 House of Representatives to scrutiny, and concludes that under the rule of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), it is well on its way to becoming what he calls a “dictatorship.” Kuttner writes that such authoritarian rule in “the people’s chamber” of Congress puts the US “at risk of becoming an autocracy.” He explains: “First, Republican parliamentary gimmickry has emasculated legislative opposition in the House of Representatives (the Senate has other problems). [DeLay] has both intimidated moderate Republicans and reduced the minority party to window dressing.… Second, electoral rules have been rigged to make it increasingly difficult for the incumbent party to be ejected by the voters, absent a Depression-scale disaster, Watergate-class scandal, or Teddy Roosevelt-style ruling party split.… Third, the federal courts, which have slowed some executive branch efforts to destroy liberties, will be a complete rubber stamp if the right wins one more presidential election. Taken together, these several forces could well enable the Republicans to become the permanent party of autocratic government for at least a generation.” Kuttner elaborates on his rather sweeping warnings.
Legislative Dictatorship - The House, and to a lesser extent the Senate, used to have what was called a “de facto four-party system”: liberal Democrats; Southern “Dixiecrats” who, while maintaining their membership as Democrats largely due to lingering resentment of Republicans dating back to the Civil War, often vote with Republicans; conservative Republicans; and moderate-to-liberal “gypsy moth” Republicans, who might vote with either party. Rarely did one of the four elements gain long-term control of the House. Because of what Kuttner calls “shifting coalitions and weak party discipline,” the majority party was relatively respectful of the minority, with the minority free to call witnesses in hearings and offer amendments to legislation. In the House, that is no longer true. While the House leadership began centralizing under House Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX) between 1987 and 1989, the real coalescence of power began under Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) between 1995 and 1999. The process, Kuttner asserts, has radically accelerated under DeLay and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL).
Centralized Legislation - Under current practices, even most Republicans do not, as a rule, write legislation—that comes from DeLay and Hastert. Drastic revisions to bills are often rammed through late in the evening, with little or no debate. The Republican leadership has classified legislation as “emergency” measures 57 percent of the time, allowing them to be voted on with as little as 30 minutes of debate. Kuttner writes, “On several measures, members literally did not know what they were voting for.” Legislation written and proposed by Democrats rarely gets to the floor for debate. Amendments to legislation is also constrained, almost always coming from Hastert and DeLay. “[V]irtually all major bills now come to the floor with rules prohibiting amendments.” DeLay enforces rigid party loyalty, threatening Republican members who resist voting for the leadership’s bills with loss of committee assignments and critical campaign funds, and in some circumstances with DeLay’s sponsoring primary opponents to unseat the uncooperative member in the next election.
Democrats Shut out of Conferences - In the House, so-called “conference committees,” where members work to reconcile House and Senate versions of legislation, have become in essence one-party affairs. Only Democrats who might support the Republican version of the bill are allowed to attend. The conference committee then sends a non-amendable bill to the floor for a final vote.
No Hearings - The general assumption is that House members debate bills, sometimes to exhaustion, on the chamber floor. No more. Before DeLay, bills were almost never written in conference committees. Now, major legislation is often written in conference committee; House members often never see the legislation until it has been written in final, non-amendable form by DeLay and his chosen colleagues.
Abuse of Appropriations - Appropriations, or funding of events authorized by legislation, are ripe for use and misuse by the one-party leadership. Many appropriations bills must pass in order for Congress or other entities of the government to continue functioning. While “earmarks”—“pork-barrel” appropriations for individual members’ pet projects and such—are nothing new, under Gingrich and later Hastert/DeLay, the use of earmarks has skyrocketed. Huge earmarks are now routinely attached to mandatory appropriations bills. DeLay has perfected a technique known as “catch and release.” On close pending votes, the House Republican Whip Organization, made up of dozens of regional whips, will target the small but critical number of Republicans who might oppose the legislation. Head counts are taken; as members register (and change) their votes, some are forced to vote against their consciences (or their constituents) and others are allowed to vote no. Kuttner writes, “Basically, Republican moderates are allowed to take turns voting against bills they either oppose on principle or know to be unpopular in their districts.” This allows the member to save at least some face with their constituents. Under Wright, Republican members such as then-Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY) were outraged when Wright held a vote open for 15 minutes after voting was to end; Cheney called it “the most arrogant, heavy-handed abuse of power I’ve ever seen in the 10 years that I’ve been here.” It is not unusual for DeLay to hold votes open for up to three hours to get recalcitrant members in line. (Kuttner 2/1/2004) In 2006, author John Dean will note that when the Republicans took control of the House in 1999, there were 1,439 earmarks in that year’s legislation. By the end of 2005, “there were a staggering 13,998 earmarked expenses, costing $27.3 billion.” Dean will write, “Needless to say, there is nothing conservative in those fiscal actions but there is much that is authoritarian about the wanton spending by those Republicans.” (Dean 2006)
Lack of Opposition - Kuttner notes that Congressional Democrats have not mounted a systematic, organized denunciation of the DeLay operation. Kuttner believes that many Democrats believe voters are uninterested in what they call “process issues,” and that voters will dismiss complaints as “inside baseball,” of little relevance to their lives. Worse, such complaints “make… us look weak,” as one senior House staffer says. Kuttner writes that many Democrats believe such complaints sound “like losers whining.”
Permanent Republican Majority - If DeLay and his confreres in the White House have their way, there will be, in essence, a permanent Republican majority in the House and hopefully in the Senate as well. Bill Clinton routinely practiced what he called bipartisan “triangulation,” building ad hoc coalitions of Democrats and Republicans to pass his legislative initiatives, and in the process weakening the Democratic leadership. Kuttner writes, “Bush’s presidency, by contrast, has produced a near parliamentary government, based on intense party discipline both within Congress and between Congress and the White House.” Republicans have been busy reworking the district maps of various key states to ensure that Republicans keep their majorities, concentrating perceived Democratic voters to have overwhelming majorities in a few districts, and leaving the Republicans holding smaller majorities in the rest. Both parties have been guilty of such “gerrymandering” in the past, but with DeLay’s recent “super-gerrymandering” of his home state of Texas, the Republican makeup of the Texas House delegation is all but assured. DeLay and other House Republicans are working to redistrict other states in similar fashions. As of the 2004 midterm elections, of the 435 House seats, only around 25 are considered effectively contestable—over 90 percent of the House seats are “safe.” Democrats would have to win a disproportionate, and unlikely, number of those “swing” seats to take back control of the House. Kuttner writes: “The country may be narrowly divided, but precious few citizens can make their votes for Congress count. A slender majority, defying gravity (and democracy), is producing not moderation but a shift to the extremes.”
Control of Voting - Kuttner cites the advent of electronic voting machines and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) as two reasons why Republicans will continue to have advantages at the voting booth. The three biggest manufacturers of electronic voting machines have deep financial ties to the Republican Party, and have joined with Republicans in opposing a so-called “verifiable paper trail” that could prove miscounts and possible fraudulent results. HAVA, written in response to the 2000 Florida debacle, requires that voters show government-issued IDs to be allowed to vote, a provision that Kuttner says is ripe for use in Republican voter-intimidation schemes. Republicans “have a long and sordid history of ‘ballot security’ programs intended to intimidate minority voters by threatening them with criminal prosecution if their papers are not technically in order,” he writes. “Many civil rights groups see the new federal ID provision of HAVA as an invitation to more such harassment.” The only recourse that voters have to such harassment is to file complaints with the Department of Justice, which, under the aegis of Attorney General John Ashcroft, has discouraged investigation of such claims.
Compliant Court System - Increasingly, federal courts with Republican-appointed judges on the bench have worked closely with Republicans in Congress and the White House to issue rulings favorable to the ruling party. Kuttner notes that if President Bush is re-elected: “a Republican president will have controlled judicial appointments for 20 of the 28 years from 1981 to 2008. And Bush, in contrast to both his father and Clinton, is appointing increasingly extremist judges. By the end of a second term, he would likely have appointed at least three more Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and locked in militantly conservative majorities in every federal appellate circuit.” The Supreme Court is already close to becoming “a partisan rubber stamp for contested elections,” Kuttner writes; several more justices in the mold of Justices Antonin Scalia (see September 26, 1986) and Clarence Thomas (see October 13, 1991) would, Kuttner writes, “narrow rights and liberties, including the rights of criminal suspects, the right to vote, disability rights, and sexual privacy and reproductive choice. It would countenance an unprecedented expansion of police powers, and a reversal of the protection of the rights of women, gays, and racial, religious, and ethnic minorities. [It would] overturn countless protections of the environment, workers and consumers, as well as weaken guarantees of the separation of church and state, privacy, and the right of states or Congress to regulate in the public interest.” (Kuttner 2/1/2004)
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