- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2006

Of all the many marvelous Ronald Reagan lines, this is my favorite: “We are a nation that has a government — not the other way around.”

He said it in his Inaugural address in 1981. And despite a Democratic-controlled Congress, he lived it. It sums up his legacy abroad: Across post-communist Europe, from Lithuania to Bulgaria to Slovenia, governments that had nations have been replaced by nations that have governments.

But it’s an important distinction for nontotalitarian states, too. For example, in May 2004 the Canadian government proudly announced the country had “created” 56,100 new jobs in the last month. That’s terrific news, isn’t it? The old economic engine positively roaring away in top gear. But on closer inspection, of those 56,100 new jobs, 4,200 were self-employed, 8,900 were in private businesses, and the remaining 43,000 were on the public payroll.

That’s why they call it “creating jobs”: 77 percent of new jobs were government jobs, paid for by the poor schlubs working away in the remaining 23 percent. The “good news” was merely an acceleration of the remorseless transfer from the dynamic sector of the economy to the nondynamic. For too much of its recent history, Canada has been a government that has a nation. And across the pond, the European Union is a government that has a Continent.

Which current member of the Republican Party’s creme de la creme could utter that Reagan line and mean it? Take House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Last week, something very unusual happened: There was a story out of Washington that didn’t reflect badly on the Republican Party’s competence or self-discipline. It was about a Democrat. Fellow from Louisiana called William Jefferson. Corruption investigation. Don’t worry, if you’re too distracted by “American Idol,” it’s not hard to follow, you just need to know one little visual image: According to an FBI affidavit, this Democratic congressman was caught on video taking a $100,000 bribe from a government informer and then storing it in his freezer. That’s what the scandal’s supposed to be: Democrat Ice Capades of 2006.

All the GOP had to do was keep out of the way and let Mr. Jefferson and his Dem defenders skate across the thin ice like Tonya Harding with her lumpy tights full of used 20s. It was a perfect story: No Republicans need be harmed in this scandal.

So what does Mr. Hastert do? He and the House Republican leadership intervene in the case on behalf of the Democrat: They’re strenuously objecting to the FBI having the appalling lese majeste to go to court, obtain a warrant and search Mr. Jefferson’s office. In constitutional terms, they claim it violates the separation of powers. In political terms, they’re climbing right into the Frigidaire with Mr. Jefferson’s crisp, chilled billfold. What does the Republican base’s despair with Congress boil down to? That the Gingrich revolutionaries have turned into the pampered potentates of pre-1994 Washington, a remote insulated arrogant elite interested only in protecting the privileges of the permanent governing class.

But how best to confirm it? Hmm. What if we send the Republican speaker out to argue congressmen are beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. law-enforcement agencies?

After all, the GOP’s 1994 Contract with America stated pretty plainly that henceforth “all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress.” But that was a long time ago, wasn’t it?

The constitutional point is clear. Congressional “immunity” is merely the Founders’ retention of the English parliamentary privilege. That’s to say, an elected representative cannot be tried for anything he says on the floor of the legislature. The reason for that is to create a climate in which parliamentary members are free to speak the truth. Yet oddly enough, as the gruesome “comprehensive immigration reform” farrago made plain, that’s about the one thing they don’t do: The Senate bill was bulldozed through by a phalanx of evasions and euphemisms and obfuscations and cheap sneers — the cheapest being John McCain’s complaint that those who object to illegal aliens being rewarded for their lawbreaking with backdated Social Security and other entitlements are forcing them to “ride in the back of the bus.”

Oh, please. The illegals are getting to ride in the front of the bus. It’s the foreign-born spouse of the U.S. citizen midway through his decadelong application for permanent residence who is to be shunted to the back of the bus.

In other words, the Hastert-McCain Congress is now the complete inversion of what it was meant to be: They won’t exercise their right to brave honest debate but they will claim the right for congressmen to keep evidence of crime and corruption in their offices without having to be bound by footling piffle like court-ordered search warrants.

By the way, even if one favored the “comprehensive immigration reform” bill, it’s a complete fantasy. Anyone who’s had any experience of U.S. immigration knows there is no way you can toss another 15 million people into the waiting room of a system that can barely process routine nondiscretionary applications in under a decade. But then the ever greater disconnect between ineptly drafted legislation and reality seems to be of no interest to the United States Congress.

City Journal’s Nicole Gelinas had an interesting story the other day about the effect of the Sarbanes-Oxley regulatory reforms, poorly drafted and hastily passed in the wake of the Enron collapse. The regulatory burden imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley has increased the cost of being a medium-sized public company by 223 percent since 2002. As a result, growing companies choose to list themselves not on the New York Stock Exchange but in London, Luxembourg and Hong Kong. SOx is a badly written law that forces companies to devote inordinate time and money in hopes of complying with its vague requirements. It makes more sense to go elsewhere. In other words, the cost of access to U.S. equity markets has become too high.

But hey, that’s no problem for federal legislators who’ve moved on to frolic in other pastures. I said the other day Mr. McCain and Arlen Specter and Paul Sarbanes and Trent Lott and the rest were presidents-for-life of the one-party state of Incumbistan. Between all the comprehensive immigration reform and corporate governance reform and campaign-finance reform and campaign-finance-reform reform and all the other changes, McCain and Company sail on, eternally unchanging, decade after decade.

There are no plans for Senate governance reform or Trent Lott finance reform. Incumbistan is a government that has a nation.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2005

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