- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2000

Once again the government has won. The little boy whose mother died in the deep will have to cross it again in the wrong direction. Not immediately, perhaps, but we all know the adage about possession being nine-tenths of the law except that in the United States people are not supposed to be possessions anymore. That's Castro talk.
Most of what needs to be said by decent people about the Elian Gonzalez matter has been said, and said again. But one thing remains: Congress should hold hearings and vote on the matter immediately and precisely because polls indicate that nearly two-thirds of Americans support the government's armed seizure of Elian. It need not vote to grant Elian and his father citizenship or even to grant them indefinite residency. Either measure would be good, but both may ask too much of even normally courageous conservatives. But Congress should vote at least to condemn, in scathing legalese, the method used by the Justice Department to retrieve Elian, which clearly endangered his life and the lives of other innocent people. The important thing is the vote.
Some Republicans may ask why. There are three reasons. One is because voting establishes accountability. A second is because that's how Congress teaches. And the third is because good teaching is good politics.
Few incumbent Republicans remember the vote to give away the Panama Canal, which occurred long before they arrived in Washington. The liberal chic of that day said that the Panama Canal vote was an easy call. Of course, the liberals said, the canal (today bracketed by China's Hutchinson Whampoa company) should be "restored" to Panamanians, and the polls supported them. Nevertheless, when the matter went to a vote and the legislators knew they would be held accountable, the measure passed by only a single vote. But those who opposed the giveaway have benefited politically ever since and those who favored it have suffered at the ballot box; not a good enough trade, perhaps but some justice has been done.
The same thing happened after the 1996 government shutdown. The media pilloried the Republican Congress, saying it was "robbing people of their paychecks," and making similar absurd charges. But a few weeks after the Republicans caved, however, the polls showed that the public, having studied the matter, had begun to think Congress was right after all. That vote too is still affecting congressional reputations.
And we are learning in this election cycle that people are remembering how their congressmen voted on impeachment. Early and loud were those who said that lying under oath in support of entertainment and suborning perjury in pursuit of pleasure were just charming schoolboy antics. But today's election forecasts are suggesting Americans have a more adult view of the vote on Bill Clinton's impeachment than that of many of their representatives or the media.
Astute political analysts see the Elian Gonzalez matter as another opportunity for a defining vote. Republicans can teach the nation that Attorney General Janet Reno's sending of troops in at gunpoint endangered the life of precisely the individual she claimed to be assisting. They can teach the nation that the action was wrong, and probably illegal. And if there's a vote, there will be a record of those who thought the operation that snatched this small boy at gunpoint before the sun got up was okay. That's accountability without which democracy, like an after-dinner parlor game, has little significance.
Communism having failed to abolish mortality, the Cuban dictator cannot be expected to be in place for many more years certainly not for more years than Elian can be expected to live (unless something sinister occurs). And it is not a given that someone like Mr. Castro will succeed him; indeed Mr. Castro would be the first to admit that there is no one like him. So the existence of a free Cuba within Elian's lifetime is far more conceivable than was the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship.
It is not hard to envision a 12-year-old Elian returning to the United States with a terrifying tale to tell of his return to Cuba and with thanks for many Americans, including those in Congress who cast a vote on his behalf. It would remain for the American voters to punish the delinquents, whose votes would give them away but only if Congress votes on the matter now.

Daniel Oliver was head of the Federal Trade Commission from 1986-1989. M.D.B. Carlisle was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

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