Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Conservative columnists have a case of congressional crankiness. Take Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal, for example. She wrote last week that Republicans on the Hill are so far off track it might take losing in November to unlearn the lessons of power. Media critic Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post found her mood so foreboding he suggested only Prozac might lift conservatives’ gathering gloom. Frustration among conservatives is both palpable and understandable. Many believe — accurately, I might add — their pens played a role in promoting the emergence of the Republican majority in Congress.

But frustration is also a communicable disease, and selective memory loss is one of its symptoms. Conservatives may need a dose of remembrance and a lesson in the limits of power the majority party faces in the modern Congress. The same pens that helped inaugurate a Republican majority could hand congressional gavels to liberal lawmakers by creating a pandemic of low turnout among conservatives.

How soon we forget. When President Bush took office, the economy was teetering on the brink of recession. The Republican Congress passed legislation to cut taxes every year since Mr. Bush took office — including the latest signed into law yesterday, extending capital gains and dividends tax cuts for two more years. These fiscal policies championed by conservatives keep our economy surging forward, representing tangible evidence that supplyside economics works. Don’t bet that New York Democrat Charlie Rangel as Ways and Means Committee chair would continue this pattern.

Conservatives also promote legal reforms. In the last couple of years, the Republican Congress passed and the president signed comprehensive class-action reform, gun manufacturers’ liability reform and bankruptcy reform — all over the vigorous objections of the left and their friends in the trial bar. Michigan Democrat John Conyers certainly would not follow this path as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The Republican majority in Congress has been a bulwark defending the culture of life. The 108th Congress passed and the president signed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and a partial birth abortion ban. California Democrat Nancy Pelosi would not even schedule these items for a vote if she were House speaker.

Republicans in the Senate defeated the left by confirming two outstanding conservative jurists to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito will put a conservative imprint on the court possibly for decades.

The list could go on. It just seems some conservatives have a case of selective amnesia, overcome by the anti-Republican aroma in a Washington atmosphere with a nose that only smells bad news.

Have their been some missteps? You bet. But Republican lawmakers, like the rest of us, are fallible. We elect politicians, not popes.

Frustrated conservatives should aim their fury at the real culprit — the 45 Democratic senators who have the means and motive to block most conservative initiatives. Consider what the House, where “majority” really means 50 percent plus one, has passed in the last several years: permanent tax cuts, death tax elimination, medical malpractice reform, creating opportunity zones in urban areas, welfare reform, child interstate abortion notification and Head Start reform, to name a few. The House could have also adopted some version of Social Security reform with personal accounts and tax simplification had Senate prospects not been so bleak.

While Washington shorthand says Republicans hold the majority in the Senate, the phrase is a misnomer in the modern Congress. The day after the 2004 election, I wrote in the Weekly Standard that conservatives should temper their expectations despite a four-seat gain by Republicans: “A combination of new Democratic tactics and old Senate rules still leaves the minority the power to frustrate the Republicans’ legislative agenda,” I quoted former Senate parliamentarian Bob Dove, “This is now a 60-vote chamber,” and a determined minority with 41 votes could block almost everything — and they usually do. Given these institutional rules and heightened partisanship, it’s surprising Republicans have enacted any conservative policies in the past five years.

Instead of wallowing in frustration, conservatives need a new mantra: There’s more work to do. They should begin by painting a more realistic picture of the meaning of “controlling” the Senate for conservative voters and then promote the creation of a real majority by trying to elect five to seven more Republican senators.

Prozac cannot lift the collective spirits of conservatives, but neither will “Speaker” Pelosi.

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