- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Last night’s State of the Union address and the Democratic rebuttal reconfirmed how much this event has turned into a primetime political extravaganza rather than a serious discourse on the nation’s future. Predictably, not a single mention of the most pressing of issues was made. In blunt terms, America’s government is failing to meet its obligations to the nation. This failure is bipartisan. And both Republicans and Democrats alike are ducking responsibility and accountability for this failure.

The chaos in Iraq, the overly zealous promotion of democracy that now must cope with Hamas in power in Palestine, the Katrina response, the Medicare prescription-drug fiasco and many other examples should make Americans angry with government and with both political parties for tolerating or causing such unsatisfactory performance. Meanwhile, the tough issues from retirement and health care to the war on terror get tougher and seemingly more intractable to satisfactory political solution.

The Bush administration regards the offense as the only way to play politics. Dismissive of criticism, the administration refuses to make change except under great duress. On only a few occasions, such as delaying the president’s quest for Social Security reform and withdrawing the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, has the administration backed down. The administration also treats Congress as if it were a junior cousin to Britain’s House of Lords and a mostly inconvenient debating society.

Until recently and impelled by controversies over strategy for Iraq, torture, domestic spying and Jack Abramoff’s thick wallet, Congress has been sadly absent without leave. It has persistently failed to conduct meaningful oversight on the administration. The blundered rebuilding of Iraq, a dysfunctional homeland security department and divisions within the “reformed” intelligence community still have not provoked any real action by Congress.

The hearings over Judge Samuel Alito decomposed into partisan bickering and posturing. The tidal wave of reform legislation to clean up the excesses and possible illegalities of lobbyists will do more harm than good if it concentrates on the superficial symptoms and not the causes of what ails the legislative process. And we will see if hearings on domestic wiretapping produce any light.

Republican control of Congress has provided the White House a nearly free pass in accountability. While Democrats rightly complain that Republicans have virtually excluded the minority in Congress, they have done nothing in mounting any effective response. Partisanship has become catastrophically destructive and members from both sides of the aisle have acted more like spoiled children than officials elected to serve the public good. Many Americans believe that Congress collectively is advancing the interests of each political party and individual members at the expense of the nation.

If the state of the union is to improve, accountability in government must be restored. Several years ago, this column proposed a Sarbanes-Oxley type of law for government. Sarbanes-Oxley was passed in the wake of the Enron, Tyco and other corporate scandals. It mandated greater transparency, oversight and accountability in the corporate world. Similar steps for government must be taken in at least two areas.

First, as CEOs must certify the accuracy of all financial data, so too executive branch officials and committee chairman and ranking members in Congress must do the same for budget submissions and for budgetary legislation. Repeats of the prescription-drug Bill episode cannot be tolerated.

Second, members would affirm that they have read and understood pending legislation before voting on it. In part, this would redress the excesses of “earmarks,” namely the last minute and unapproved insertion of directed spending into a bill, along with the practice of combining several or many appropriations into a single, often unintelligible and massive “omnibus” bill.

When this proposal was first floated, it was meet with grudging agreement by some in Congress and then dismissed on the grounds that such a law was unworkable. Given the complexity and size of many bills, members argued there was no time to review each piece of legislation before voting on it, even if that was a principal reason why they were elected to office — to pass laws.

CEOs responded similarly to Sarbanes-Oxley. How could they be accountable for every financial figure and fact that was reported either to the public or regulatory agencies? Yet, they were and they are.

Forcing members to review each piece of legislation will mean that bills must be published more then the 24 hours in advance, as is currently required and often not done. “Earmarks” would be subject to scrutiny. And lumping individual appropriations bills into a single “omnibus” piece of legislation will be made more difficult.

The best outcome is for the governed to demand more sensible government from its governors. If that does not happen, then the state of the union will be one of continuing disarray.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Times. His latest book due out this spring — “America Restored: Preventing Culture, Crusade and Partisanship from Wrecking the Nation” — raises these and other important issues.

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