In an era of such sharp partisanship and polarization, it is easy to be jaded about Congressional policy and politics, and hard to be surprised by anything. But I have found two things of late in the Senate to be particularly unsettling and depressing--because they involve in a bad light some of the lawmakers I respect and like the most.
The first is the failure of any Republican Senator to step up and support the DISCLOSE Act, to bring sunlight to the outrageous, anonymous huge funders who played a major role in the 2010 campaigns, hiding behind the cloak of 501(c)(4)s run by groups cynically manipulating weak IRS enforcement of the law.
Voters support disclosure by overwhelming margins. So do Supreme Court justices--by 8-to-1. The only chance to provide it is in the lame-duck session; the bill passed the House in the 111th Congress and has zero chance of making through the 112th House. If the Senate does not act now, disclosure is dead.
The Senate does not have to pass the same bill the House did; if there are problems with DISCLOSE, if it goes too far or has cumbersome provisions, those can be easily excised--and the sponsors have made it clear that they will do so to get at least a streamlined disclosure provision to ameliorate the worst abuses of the post-Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission world.
So where are the previous champions of campaign finance reform? Where is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose greatest legislative accomplishment was given a sharp stick in the eye by a 5-4 decision on the Supreme Court? Where are previous supporters of reform--and professed supporters of disclosure--such as Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Scott Brown (Mass.)? And most important, where is Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who has always been an independent voice, whose Snowe-Jeffords amendment to the campaign reform law was the provision most assaulted by the Citizens United case, who stood up to immense pressure from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republican leaders in 2002 to do the right thing?
Disclosure alone will not stop the arms race that is going to escalate even more in 2012 and motivate every Member up for re-election that year to put pedal to metal in the next two years to raise money every spare minute to counter the likely assault on them over the airwaves by hit groups funded by corporations, unions and billionaires.
The urgent need to raise more and more money will lead inevitably to more and more corruption, trading votes or other favors for campaign cash, or shaking down prospective donors. But disclosure at least can provide some counterweight. It will be beyond disappointing if somehow McConnell can mesmerize or intimidate every one of the erstwhile reformers above to ignore their principles.
As important as campaign reform may be, it still takes a back seat to national security. And nothing is more puzzling, or infuriating, than what is happening to the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. This treaty is supported enthusiastically by Henry Kissinger, James Baker, George Schultz, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Adm. Mike Mullen, virtually every significant military leader active and retired, and all our NATO allies.
The reasons go beyond the arms control provisions. Reaching agreement on this treaty was a key step in a new and broader relationship with Russia, and with President Dmitry Medvedev. Of course, Russia and the U.S. remain rivals and adversaries in many ways. But the cooperation we have received on sanctions toward Iran--including especially the Russian refusal to send potent S-300 missile systems to Tehran--and on the drug trade in Afghanistan, among other things, has been a major plus. The failure of START in the Senate would endanger future cooperation and be a major embarrassment to Medvedev and a big boost to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It would also devastate the existing regime of inspection over nuclear arms, ramping up the danger of nukes getting into the hands of highly undesirable people and groups.
Of course, the treaty left some gaps and ambiguities. These were recognized and pointed out by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the conservatives' point man in the Senate on START. The administration, Lugar and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) have bent over backward to accommodate Kyl's concerns, with flat assurances that they will provide the resources to modernize our weapons and will not use the treaty to erase missile defense systems. The Russian willingness to work with us and the Europeans on a missile defense system will melt away if START falters.
But in this corrosive political environment, where even key national security issues get caught up in partisan warfare, where the goal of making the president a one-termer can trump any issue, and where too many lawmakers are afraid that they will be the next Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), the fact is that START needs to get through in the lame duck, where only eight Republicans are required to make the 67 votes needed for ratification. In January, the numbers shift in a dangerous direction, as a group of incoming Senators led by Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) have already suggested some antipathy toward the treaty.
Unfortunately, Kyl and other Republican opinion leaders such as Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) have made clear they do not want a vote on the treaty in the lame duck. Kyl has long been a Senator I admire for his seriousness of purpose, his intellect, and his decency. Corker is a thoughtful, solid and independent conservative, a rising star in the Senate, who voted for the treaty in the Foreign Relations Committee. Blunt brings real depth and experience from his position of leadership in the House; I always found him to be one who put national interest ahead of cheap shots, at least on the international front.
I cannot fathom why they are doing what they are doing. Schultz is not exactly a wimp when it comes to dealing with Russia or threats in the world. No one understands the dynamics of global relations and America's role in the world--much less the dangers of nuclear proliferation--more than Lugar.
Our military leaders are not prone to wishful thinking or peace-at-any-price thinking. The stakes for America's national interest, including Iran and Afghanistan, are immense here. Please, guys, suck it up and find a way to make this work.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.