- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2010

The letter sent by all 42 Republican senators to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid informing him that they would not allow any other legislation to proceed until both the George W. Bush tax cuts and continued funding of the government have been taken care of was a welcome moment of focus and firmness on the part of a Republican leadership that has not always displayed those qualities. But a second letter is just as necessary, also signed by all 42 Republicans, to tell Mr. Reid that any further matters he wants taken up in this lame-duck session will need to be accompanied by a compelling argument that they are urgent and cannot wait until the newly elected Congress is seated on Jan. 3.

The rationale for this position will be easy to state and will convince all but the most die-hard partisans. It begins with a simple question: If it seems likely that the treatment accorded any piece of legislation by the old Congress would be different from its fate at the hands of the new one, which of the two outcomes would have greater legitimacy? Nobody could doubt the answer. The new Congress represents the country’s present mood and disposition, and the old one represents a superseded action by the electorate.

It obviously is more appropriate to go with the former. But while that would be so at any time in history, the circumstances of this particular year make the case infinitely stronger. The upcoming change in the composition of the House is the most drastic in 60 years, which means the electorate has had an equally drastic change of mind. The House was not just updated as it usually is; the old House was vehemently rejected and even humiliated. Nobody can pretend it still has the confidence of the American people or that it has any moral authority to pass important legislation unless it is clear that such legislation absolutely cannot wait three weeks. The Republican leadership must keep faith with the decision that has just been made by the American voter: It must stop a completely discredited body from passing legislation that will lack legitimacy.

How would Democrats respond to this move? Perhaps they would yet again try to label the GOP as the “party of no,” the party of obstruction. I doubt it, though, because it is the Democrats who are the vulnerable party here. One of the reasons for their defeat was their habit of ramming highly unpopular bills through Congress regardless of the opposition of the American people. When you treat your electorate with contempt, you pay a price. If the Democrats ignore the country’s decision to set a new direction with a radically new Congress and jam through still more unpopular bills after the country has fired them for doing just that, they will be demonstrating an even greater contempt for the voters and will pay an even greater price for doing so.

“Can Republicans Talk?” Thomas Sowell asked in a recent article that bemoaned the absence of a loud and clear explanation from the Republican leadership of the economic rationale for the full range of the Bush tax cuts. Let’s hope they can and do talk about the lame-duck Congress‘ illegitimate ambitions. That second letter is badly needed. It is disgraceful that an overwhelmingly repudiated Congress thinks it still has the moral authority to commit the country to major new legislation like the DREAM Act or to an important international treaty such as START. But it would be just as disgraceful if a passive Republican leadership stood by and let this happen when it easily could have been stopped.

John M. Ellis is professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz and president of the California Association of Scholars.