BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON
“The word is out. He hasn’t paid taxes for 10 years. Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn’t.”
Those were the words of the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, Harry Reid, speaking on the Senate Floor, leveling an accusation against Gov. Mitt Romney that he could not prove, for which he offered no evidence, and had every reason to believe was not true.
Reid’s attack on Romney was clearly calculated to goad the Governor into releasing more income tax returns. The tactic is pretty transparent. A person of Romney’s wealth has to have something in his income, or his tax deductions or his charitable contributions to the Mormon Church, or something else that the Democrats could exploit. Reid, who is a wealthy man, of course, has never released his.
Reid aides, including his chief of staff, who is on the public payroll, expanded upon the Senator’s diatribe, charging that “it is clear Mitt Romney is hiding something,” and we know there are secret “offshore accounts like Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.”
President Obama’s spokesperson, Jay Carney, said the President did not urge Reid to do what he did, but did not disavow it, either. Since then, the media has kept the accusations alive and Romney continues to be dogged by the subject.
The incident reflects badly on the presidential campaign and the negativity being generated in unprecedented intensity.
But put that aside for a moment.
Americans should think twice about the fact that the leader of the U.S. Senate made a personal, partisan, and likely untrue attack on a presidential candidate in the Senate Chamber, acting out his role as a representative of the people and a leader in the Legislative Branch of Government. Senator Reid attacked Romney in the conduct of his official duties as a U.S. Senator and Senate leader.
It was an act that conformed with the letter, but probably not the spirit of the rules that govern the U.S. Senate. The Chamber’s rules state: “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
Leader Reid was exercising a freedom of speech in the halls of Congress that enjoys unique constitutional protections when it is deemed in the performance of official duties and the lines between official duties and a purely partisan attack on the character of an American citizen are murky at best. Senator Reid was within his rights to say what he said, where he said it, and he was not the first U.S. Senator to assault someone, verbally or physically, on the Senate floor.
But, as my mother used to say, that doesn’t make it right. And it doesn’t suggest that the American people ought to tolerate it.
Reid’s attack was calculated. It wasn’t a spur of the moment outburst. It was also symptomatic of an intensified and more frequent exploitation of the House and Senate floor for partisan purposes at the expense of the public good.
Both the Senate, under Democratic control, and the House, under Republican control, have spent the past two years passing dozens and dozens of pieces of legislation both Reid and House Speaker John Boehner knew very well had no chance of ever becoming law. They were, what Reid called, “show bills” designed to send a partisan message to the electorate, designed to attract votes, not govern. Both the House and the Senate floors have been used and abused as the stages for partisan political theater in degrees that seem unprecedented, undisciplined and unending.
Former House Republican Leader Bob Michel lamented in an op-ed piece last year in The Hill newspaper that one of the critical problems with our political system is that campaigns never end. It used to be that politicians would campaign for office, but once elected they closed their campaign offices and turned to the work of governing, making a distinction between the partisanship of the campaign and the politics of governing the country. Today the partisanship never ends, nor does the fundraising, nor does the nature of the campaign to divide and conquer, nor does the gridlock it causes in Congress.
Former Congressman Mickey Edwards discussed the dominance of parties in government in his new book, The Parties Versus the People, in which he concluded that we have wandered way too far away from what the Founding Fathers intended for our Republic, which was government largely free of political party influence. He said the American political 2-party system has a stranglehold on the political process. As Reid demonstrated, it has a stranglehold on government and those who govern.
The gravity of the situation is reflected in the fact that Senator Reid’s abuse of the Senate and the public trust, which he has been afforded as a congressional leader, went without penalty. Even Congressman Joe Wilson was slapped on the wrist when he abused the House Floor by yelling out, “you lie” during a Presidential address.
President Obama has lowered the bar of abuse as well. His misuse of the White House, its staff, its websites, its executive orders and its plane should be analyzed. I believe he has broken new ground, politicizing the office to a maximum degree while governing from the office to a minimum degree.
The abuse is most apparent just steps away from the Oval Office. I am baffled why White House Press Secretary Carney doesn’t refer blatantly partisan, entirely campaign-focused questions to the Obama campaign, instead of addressing them in the White House. Why do we cough up tax dollars for Carney to provide in-kind services to the President’s re-election?
The answer the political veterans say is obvious. It’s always done that way.
I once worked there. I know. I’ve heard all of the excuses and explanations. But, again, I think my mother had something for us to think about. The fact that it is done doesn’t make it right.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.