18 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 13


Ambrose Evans-Pritchard explains why the President must prevail in the Tower affair.

Washington THINK back to last August and imagine the fiasco that would have followed if George Bush had let the media intimidate him into dropping Dan Quayle from the Republican ticket. There was much talk about this in Washington at the time and a number of pusillanimous creatures in his Own party advised Bush to find somebody better, somebody acceptable to the Col- lege of Commentators, even though all of the allegations against Quayle were false, or deceitfully misconstrued. Bush held his ground, and ultimately turned the affair to his advantage by showing guts. Yet now we hear the same sort of argument being used against Senator John Tower, Bush's choice for secretary of defence, who is accused of fondling women not his wife and drinking too much whisky to be entrusted with nuclear weapons. CBS News, true to form, aired a rumour that the Senator had been keeping a Russian ballerina at a house in Houston. After three weeks of this gossip we are still waiting for a hard fact, a single instance of egregious misconduct. But Tower's many enemies do not necessarily need a fact. In this city, where chivalry is extinct, one destroys people with anonymous allega- tions. If the campaign goes on for long enough a consensus emerges that the vic- tim is `damaged' beyond repair and should withdraw from the arena.

The Senate armed services committee could put an end to the ordeal by confirm- ing Tower promptly, but the Democratic chairman, Sam Nunn, keeps adding his own logs to the pyre. If there is one man in Washington who can challenge Nunn's quiet hegemony over the Pentagon it is Tower, the belligerent four-term senator who was himself armed services chairman until 1984. This is no routine dispute. In 200 years the Congress has never once rejected a cabinet appointee ascending from its own ranks. President Bush cannot allow this precedent to be broken so lightly. If he lets the adversary Congress veto his appointment to the most impor- tant post in the cabinet, with a budget of $300 billion, by the use of scandal, it would mark the beginning of a Democratic par-

liament. As Tower goes, so goes Bush.

Overall, however, the President could not have hoped for a better start in the perennial struggle for primacy between the two branches, since the Congress has made an ass of itself by trying to sneak through a pay raise without a vote. It scarcely mat- tered that Ronald Reagan was an accom- plice, instigating the rise, which extended to judges, in order to preserve his con- servative judiciary from defections to the private sector. It is the symbolism of Congress raising its own reward that al- ways gains attention. But this time the hypocrisy was somewhat too round. Still hoarse from philippics about the budget deficit, the honourable members connived in a scheme to give themselves a 51 per cent Argentinian pay increase and then shut down the House of Representatives for a week, suspending all legislative activ- ity, to ensure that no vote could be held.

The indignity of it all set off a citizen's revolt in districts where the congressional salary of $89,500 a year already sounds like more than enough. Nor was the public appeased by promises that part of the $45,000 rise would be offset by the aboli- tion of bribery. It was a surprise to most people to learn that members of Congress are currently allowed to take cash bribes of up to $26,850 a year. For instance, the American Trucking Association pays them $1,000 to stroll across Capitol Hill for a break- fast chat. This is known as a speaking fee.

When the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, bowed to pressure last week and scheduled a vote, the whole package un- ravelled, for few dared go on the record supporting such a monster. The curses against him were not loud, but deep. He is now under attack from all sides and he faces possible mutiny if a House ethics investigation is unable to avoid censuring him for taking bribes, disguised as book royalties, from Texan developers and the Teamsters. Wright is a ruthless schemer and he will punish disloyalty, but for now he is a shadow of the man who once amassed the power to wreck the Central American policy of the Reagan Administration.

Despite the uproar, the 34-year-old Democratic majority in the House remains secure. The founding fathers hoped that elections every two years would make the House a changeable body, but now only criminals or lunatics get evicted from their seats. Last year 99 per cent of Democratic incumbents who campaigned were re- turned to Congress, even as their national champion was crushed for the fifth time in six elections. One could conclude that the Democrats are therefore still the majority party and would win the White House if only they stopped putting up liberal candi- dates for the presidency. But that does not explain how a little known liberal Demo- crat like Dennis Eckart of Ohio, to name one at random, got 67 per cent of the vote in 1984 in a district where Walter Mondale got only 40 per cent.

By and large congressional races are decided by television advertising. You can flatten an opponent with saturation bomb- ing, but it takes anything up to $1.3 million. This sort of funding comes froM lobbies like the American Medical Asso- ciation or the National Association of Realtors which pay protection money so that nobody tampers with their price-fixing guilds. They are indifferent to party or principle. They pay for performance, spending 88 per cent on incumbents and only 12 per cent on challengers. Hence the Democratic lock.

The Democrats have become rather good at using the one branch of govern- ment they can control to exercise all kinds of powers. Since the constitution is so vague this means taking whatever a weak president can be forced to give up. Even Ronald Reagan failed to halt the 20-year trend towards congressional government. In Lebanon and the Persian Gulf he tacitly submitted to the 1973 War Powers Resolu- tion, which gives Congress the authority to recall troops. He submitted, at least in principle, to the Third Boland Amendment which forbade executive agencies from helping the Nicaraguan Contras. And he let Congress impose a restrictive inter- pretation of the ABM Treaty by drawing on the 'legislative history', a goldmine that includes the scribblings of junior staff, instead of sticking to the terms of the Treaty itself. In each instance he could have overruled Congress and let the Sup- reme Court determine the constitutionality of his action. But Reagan was a wimp.

George Bush is not a wimp. He is jealous of his powers and he can expect the new, conservative majority on the Sup- reme Court to be sympathetic to executive prerogatives. He has even hinted that he may assume a 'line item veto' to cut the fat from spending bills, and let Congress challenge him in the courts if it wishes. No president has ever had such authority. The convention has always been that he must sign the bill whole, or veto it whole. If Bush fought this battle and won, it would be an historic shift of power, and another reminder that he has the will and the wits to smash his rivals — politely, of course.