Congress' Branch Rickety

This column was written by Terence Samuel.
If, as a result of a Democratic filibuster, John Bolton is not confirmed by the Senate to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, there are two things that will happen in very short order.

First, in a town that lives on irony, it will be noted ironically that the troubled nomination came to the Senate floor just after that of appeals-court Judge Priscilla Owen, on the thinking that the deal that had been struck on judicial nominations would grease the skids for Bolton. Filibusters, it seemed for a brief moment last week, had been banished as some anomalous relic of the last Congress.

Then, of course, within two days Majority Leader Bill Frist could claim that the Democrats were filibustering when they turned back an effort to invoke cloture and end debate on the Bolton nomination. But the Bolton move was a GOP parlay play that did not work: What better time to bring up a controversial nominee than just after Democrats agreed not to filibuster except under "extraordinary circumstances"?

"They are working on the assumption that we wouldn't want to do this in this kind of atmosphere," said Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat, whose ire at the Bush White House is a major factor in the latest holdup of the Bolton nomination.

The second thing that will happen if Bolton goes down is that there will be a lot of talk about how Democrats, having beaten back the "nuclear option" and Bolton, are on a roll, that they have finally learned how to deal effectively with the GOP majority on the Hill.

Having denied the White House and the congressional leadership things they so desperately wanted on judges and Bolton, the Democrats have reason to be pleased. But it may not necessarily follow that GOP setbacks are Democratic gains. Something bigger may be in play here. The Democratic successes could not have come without the emergence of a few Republicans willing to occasionally defy the White House and the leadership, and that, in a quiet way, has allowed the legislature to reassert itself in its relationship with the Bush White House.

The close alignment between the GOP leadership in the Congress and the White House has allowed some people to wonder out loud if Congress has been complicit in its own demise, whether it has eroded it governing authority and weakened its political hand. Hill Republicans have been so in step with the White House that, after 52 months in office, George W. Bush has yet to veto any legislation sent to him by Congress. Bill Clinton had 37 vetoes in his two terms; George Bush Senior had 44 in his one.

Indeed, Bush didn't even have to issue a veto threat until the Senate passed a $95 billion highway bill that included $11.2 billion more in spending than the White House wanted. He has only last week seen a bill serious enough to merit publicly issuing a threat himself, after the House passed a bill to expand federally funded embryonic stem-cell research. By and large, it's been smooth and synchronized sailing for the Republicans in charge at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Thomas Mann, the congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, told the National Journal a year and a half ago: "I have never seen Congress at such a low ebb in my 35 years in Washington … Basically what I see is a fragile, unified Republican-majority government, the first since Eisenhower, and the first with any prospect of substantial control of government going back to the 19th century. This has led to a situation in which producing the party program trumps institutional concerns. There is no one tending the institution concerns of Congress."