APPROVAL RATE OF CONGRESS AT LOWEST POINT IN 10 YEARS -- (House of Representatives - May 24, 2005)
The SPEAKER pro tempore (Mr. Westmoreland). Under the Speaker's announced policy of January 4, 2005, the gentleman from New Jersey (Mr. Pallone) is recognized for half the remaining time until midnight as the designee of the minority leader.
Mr. PALLONE. Mr. Speaker, as we prepare to return to our districts for the Memorial Day work period, I think it is important for us to take a look at where we are today and how exactly we got here in the Congress. I think, for the most part, and certainly a lot of recent polls indicate it, the American people are fed up with the Congress, that the approval rate of Congress is at its lowest point in 10 years, and it leads me to wonder how did we get to this place? I think we have to take a look back at the first 5 months of the 109th Congress this year to get some answers.
Earlier this year, the Republican leadership went ahead and changed the way the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct does its business. In the past, whenever ethics changes were being considered, they were addressed in a bipartisan fashion with both Democrats and Republicans at the table, and that is the only way ethics reform can honestly be addressed. But the Republican leadership ignored that protocol and strong-armed enough of their Members to pass new and weakened ethics rules, without any support from our Democratic colleagues.
Mr. Speaker, I think the American people understood that these new ethics rules were basically a blatant attempt by the majority to protect one of their Republican leaders. These new rules allowed either party, Democrat or Republican, to protect its own Members. Under the new Republican rules, if a majority of the committee could not determine whether or not an investigation should proceed after 45-days of receiving a complaint, that complaint would simply be dropped. Since the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is made up of five members from each party, either side could prevent an ethics investigation from moving forward against one of its Members.
That is not the way the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is supposed to work. Under the old bipartisan rules, which have now been restored, an investigative committee was created after a 45-day deadline if a majority of the committee could not determine how to proceed.
The weakened ethics rules by House Republicans did not fool anybody, certainly not the editorial writers around the country, both liberal and conservative. They followed the House proceedings closely and they were essentially fed up with the new Republican rules.
I will just give you some examples. The conservative Chicago Tribune said, ``How do House Republicans respond to ethical lapses? By trying to bury them.''
The Hartford Current wrote, ``The committee has been careening towards ethical oblivion in recent years as the majority Republicans have relaxed the standards, eased up on investigations and created trap doors through which alleged transgressors could escape.''
Finally I cite the Sarasota Herald Tribune, which wrote, ``If the GOP's leaders in Congress continue to change the rules to protect one of their own, they will have ceded the ethical high ground they pledged to take in 1994.''
Again, this is what I call the Republican abuse of power, and it is a major reason why people have lost faith in Congress and why Congress is at a 10-year low in terms of people's support or feelings about the institution.
But the Republican leadership did not just stop at weakening the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct rules. No, the leadership also purged three Republican members of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct earlier this year, three members who ruled against a Republican leader the previous year.
After losing his chairmanship on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the Republican gentleman from Colorado (Mr. Hefley) told the Washington Post that there is ``a bad perception out there that there was a purge in the Ethics Committee and that people were put in that would protect our side of the aisle better than I did.''
He continues, ``Nobody should be there to protect anybody. They should be there to protect the integrity of the institution.''
Mr. Speaker, it took congressional Republicans nearly 4 months to finally listen to their former ethics chairman and the media. But, fortunately, in the end they did restore the old bipartisan ethics rules. The gentleman from Colorado (Mr. Hefley) was clearly right, the integrity of the House is much more important than any one Member, and I think it is time the Republican leadership learn that lesson, not only on that Committee on Standards of Official Conduct issue but in general.
The abuses of power by the Republican majority really make you wonder why they are necessary now. It seems clear to me that the Republican leadership went to all this trouble to protect one of its leaders. The Wall Street Journal charged ``there is an odor, an unsavory whiff at the highest reaches of the House of Representatives.'' Every single day it seems the Members of this body and the American people are subjected to another revelation of questionable actions by one of our colleagues. It is a constant drip that is getting close to a large puddle.
Fortunately, as I said, the American people were not fooled by this abuse of power by the Republican majority with the ethics process. They saw the new rules for what they were, nothing more than an attempt to protect a powerful Republican leader, and finally, after media and public outcry became too much for the Republican majority to endure, Republicans agreed to reinstitute the old bipartisan ethics rules.
However, it is important to remember that had the public been indifferent and had the Democrats on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct gone ahead and allowed the committee to organize under the weakened rules, today this House would be structured under ethics rules that would allow either side, Democrat or Republican, to shield its Members from scrutiny.
Mr. Speaker, the Republican ethics reversal was good for this institution and good for the American people.
Now, there are still a lot of questions remaining about what the Republican majority is doing with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Despite the majority's change of heart on weakening the ethics rules, there are still several areas where the Republican leadership is continuing to delay any action by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
The new chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has said that he wants to appoint his chief of staff from his personal office to be the new staff director of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. This action would defy House rules, which state that Committee on Standards of Official Conduct staffers are to be nonpartisan.
It is inconceivable that the rules would allow the chairman to unilaterally appoint a chief counsel without immediately running afoul of the rules. Trying to do so would be a clear violation of the rules, as well as an affront to the committee's tradition.
The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is supposed to be a place where Members can get straight, unbiased, trustworthy ethics guidance. How can Members who might have disagreements with the House leadership feel comfortable going to the committee for advice if they fear committee staff members are incapable of performing their official duties in a nonpartisan fashion?
My point is that the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct should be a politics-free zone. One way to ensure politics stops at the committee doors is to hire staff whose first loyalty is to the ethics rules of the House and second loyalty is in equal measure to the chairman, ranking member and remaining members of the committee. If committee staff are perceived as being loyal to or owing their position to only one member of the committee, their ability to render advice and investigate sensitive ethics issues will be called into question.
I would say once again, Mr. Speaker, the American public see the games the Republican leadership is playing with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and they simply do not like it. They would rather see this committee go back to work in a bipartisan fashion, and now, so the Congress can address their concerns.
Now I want to go from the one issue of abuse of power here in the House related to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to the other outrageous abuse of power in the other body, in the Senate, and this relates, of course, to the Senate filibuster.
Senate Republicans have spent much of the last 4 months fixating on seven extreme judges President Bush once again sent up for confirmation after they had already been rejected during his first term. Rather than dealing with rising gas prices and an economy that continues to falter and other issues that people really care about, Senate Republicans attempted to have a power grab, unlike any other in the history of the U.S. Senate.
Fortunately, Mr. Speaker, the Republican quest for absolute power in Washington was temporarily halted last night by 14 Senators. And this was a truly bipartisan group. Seven Democrats and seven Republicans came together to save the Senate from moving forward with an extreme power grab that would have undermined the very checks and balances that have existed in our Nation for over 200 years.
Senator Frist and the Senate Republican leadership were prepared to wage an unprecedented political power grab on the filibuster. They wanted to change the Senate rules in the middle of the game and wanted to attack our historic system of checks and balances with the filibuster so that they could ram through a small number of judicial nominees who otherwise could not achieve a consensus.
In reality, the power grab by the Senate Republican leadership in trying to eliminate the filibuster did not really have much to do probably with the current judicial nominees, but instead it was an attempt by the White House and conservative interest groups to clear the way for a Supreme Court nominee eventually who would only need 51 votes rather than 60.
Conservative interest groups and a large majority of Senate Republicans are not happy with the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court. They do not want to see another David Souder or Anthony Kennedy nominated to the Supreme Court, even though they both were confirmed with nearly unanimous bipartisan support. They would prefer to see President Bush nominate a Supreme Court Justice like Clarence Thomas, who, because of extreme views, could not garner strong bipartisan support. In Justice Thomas's case, he only received 52 votes, and he has proven to be an extremist.
If the Senate had proceeded with this power grab and gotten rid of the filibuster, President Bush would have been able to appoint right-wing judges to the Supreme Court.
The President has already said he most admires Justices Scalia and Thomas and I think it would be frightening to think of another Justice with that same mold.
Mr. Speaker, at the end of the day a group of 14 bipartisan senators kept the Senate Republican leadership from moving forward with this extreme power grab. The bipartisan compromise that was reached last night shows that President Bush is not going to be able to ignore the moderate views of these senators when he appoints future justices to the Supreme Court, and I think that is certainly good news for our country.
I think certainly what was happening here, Mr. Speaker, was that the White House was manufacturing a crisis with these judicial nominees. The American people know that there was absolutely no reason for the Senate to take the measure of eliminating the minority's right for input on judicial nominees. The White House has essentially manufactured this judicial crisis because if you look at the record, over the past 4 years, the Senate has confirmed 208 of Mr. Bush's judicial nominations and turned back only 10. That is a 95 percent confirmation rate, higher than any other President in modern times, including presidents Reagan, the first President Bush, and President Clinton. In fact, it is thanks to these confirmations that President Bush now presides over the lowest court vacancy rate in 15 years.
Despite what Senate Republicans are saying today, judicial nominees have not always received an up-or-down vote on the Senate Floor. In fact, back in 2000, it was Senate Republicans that attempted to filibuster two of President Clinton's appointments to the Ninth Circuit Court. Senator Frist, the architect, of course, of eliminating the filibuster now, voted to continue a filibuster of a Clinton nominee, Richard Paez.
There are also other ways the senators can prevent a nominee from receiving an up-or-down vote on the Floor, and this has happened many times in the past, which shows why it is not the case that there has to be an up-or-down vote. Judicial nominees have often been stalled in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. More than one-third of President Clinton's appeals court nominees never received an up-or-down vote on the Floor of the Senate because Senator Hatch, then the chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, refused to bring the nominees' names up for a vote in the committee.
And, I think it is extremely disingenuous of Senator Frist to say that all nominees are entitled to an up-or-down vote when he himself helped Senate Republicans block President Clinton's nominees in the late 1990s. We did not hear him talking about an up-or-down vote then when President Clinton was nominating judges.
I just want to say, once again, Mr. Speaker, I think that the bipartisan agreement reached last night was extremely valuable. It will keep two of the President's nominees from moving forward who really do not deserve to be appointed, and I would hope that the President would learn from last night's action that, unlike the House, the Senate is not a chamber that will be a rubber stamp for his extreme views. Let us hope that President Bush was listening and will resist nominating extreme right-wing judges to our courts in the future.
But all of this, not only the action in the House on the ethics rules, but also the action in the Senate on the filibuster, I think they are examples really of how the Republican majority has abused its power. And the consequence of that is that the public is increasingly disappointed and feels that the Congress does not do its job, that it is essentially a do-nothing Congress. And as we approach the Memorial Day recess, I think I need to stress that, that I believe the reason why the polling and the media shows that people no longer have faith in Congress or that the support of Congress as an institution has dropped significantly is because of the Republican leadership's fixation on these issues that consolidate their power, that seek to consolidate their power without focusing on the real issues that affect the American people.
A USA Today CNN poll that was released today, Mr. Speaker, showed that the American people are fed up with Republican control of Congress and are ready for a democratic Congress. And who can blame them? If they had been watching the abuses of power that had been taking place in both the House and the Senate in the last four months, they would have to be disgusted. Beyond that disgust, I think it is clear that they just want Congress to address the issues of importance in their lives, and we are going to be going into a Memorial Day recess without most of those issues being addressed. It really has been, for the last five months, a do-nothing Congress.
For five months now, congressional Republicans have done nothing to reverse their abysmal economic record. The fact is that middle class families are being squeezed at the gas pump, at the pharmacy with high drug prices, and in the grocery store. There are growing signs of a faltering economy, with President Bush still having the worst jobs record in history.
Instead of addressing the serious kitchen table issues of American families, education, health care, you name it, Republicans are focusing on legislation that is written for the special interests and will actually harm middle class families.
Instead of increasing the minimum wage and expanding prosperity, Republicans are focused on undercutting bipartisan ethics rules.
Instead of creating good jobs with good paychecks by completing the much-delayed highway bill, for example, Republicans choose to focus instead on undercutting the checks and balances on judicial nominations by focusing on the filibuster.
Instead of enacting an energy bill that improves our communities and brings down gas prices and tries to create more energy independence, the Republicans have channeled their energy into replacing Social Security with a risky privatization scheme that clearly most Americans do not support, and the President probably is going to have to eventually abandon.
And, instead of passing a budget that reflects the values of America's families, Republicans brought the entire Federal Government to intervene in the personal tragedy of just one family, and I am, of course, talking about the Terry Schiavo case. I think it is no wonder that the American people are not pleased with Congress, and I think it is time congressional Republicans take a hard look at these polls. I do not say, Mr. Speaker, that we should always be looking at polls, but in this case, the polls reflect what people are thinking.
I go back, and I will, of course, go back to my district during the Memorial Day recess, and I know I am going to hear from people who are saying, why are you not talking about health care, why are you not talking about education? What are you doing about the trade deficit? What are you doing about the budget deficit? What is the reason why a crisis for everything from housing to groceries to gas continue to go up, and we in Congress do not address the issues.
I am simply saying that the Republican leadership should listen to their constituents. The polls reflect, I think, what our constituents are telling us. I think the American people really want these abuses of power to stop. They do not want to hear us talking about the filibuster and about the ethics process; not that those are not important, they are, in terms of the procedures and how we proceed. But, in each of these cases, the Republicans wanted to change the procedure here so that they could get their own way, and instead of concentrating on those procedural issues and trying to change the rules, they should get down and look at issues like the rising cost of college, the rising cost of health care, the rising price of gas at a time when most people's wages are shrinking.
It is simply time, I think, for us to get down to the people's business. I hope that when we come back after the Memorial Day recess, that we can see the end of these Republican abuses of power, we can see the end of their trying to change the rules and, rather, focusing in a bipartisan way on trying to address some of the Americans concerns of the American people.
STEPS TOWARD PEACE IN ISRAEL
I just wanted to switch to a different issue, if I could, Mr. Speaker, for a few minutes, because I know that this Thursday is an historic day when the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is going to be visiting Washington to talk to President Bush. I wanted to discuss briefly the recent developments in the Middle East peace process and how that relates to this historic visit to Washington by the Palestinian leader.
This is the first time a Palestinian leader has visited the United States since peace talks in 2000 collapsed into bloodshed. This is a critical opportunity for Abbas to prove to Israel and the world that their commitment to peace goes beyond rhetoric and that the Palestinian leadership is taking concrete steps towards peace.
Just as this is an important opportunity for Abbas to show that he is committed to peace, Abbas's visit to Washington is an equally important opportunity for the United States to further encourage reforms in the Palestinian Authority. As one of my constituents said to me this afternoon, and this is one of the reasons that I am here this evening, the United States must be willing to hold Abbas's feet to the fire.
That being said, in order for negotiations to move forward, Abbas must rise to the occasion. He must take steps to dismantle Hamas and the Palestinian terrorist network. Security is of the utmost concern for Israel and Hamas is a direct threat to the safety of the Israeli people.
Mr. Speaker, Israel has taken remarkable risks over the last few months to advance the peace process.
By the end of this summer, Israel has agreed to withdrawal its military and civilian presence from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank, and this decision was made at great political, financial, and emotional risk for the Israeli people.
In his speech today in Washington at the annual meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that he is willing to work with Abbas to ensure a secure transition in Gaza. Cooperation on this level is an unprecedented step. It is critical that the Palestinians work to ensure a safe transition, that any looting or violence is prevented. Israel has taken the dramatic step of withdrawal; Abbas must then ensure that Gaza does not become a haven for terrorists.
This morning, Sharon also announced that as a sign of good faith, he plans to release 400 Palestinian prisoners. This is in addition to the 500 prisoners freed in February as part of an agreement between the two sides.
I would urge President Bush to be firm in his meeting with Abbas on Thursday that any support of terrorism will not be tolerated, that these next couple months will be critical if the peace process is to continue, the disengagement, and the upcoming Palestinian elections must go smoothly.
Mr. Speaker, I would like all of my colleagues to be cautiously optimistic about the situation in Israel. These initial steps are heartening, but the words must be met with action.
I had the opportunity almost two years ago to go to Israel at the time when there was a cease-fire and there was relative peace. At that time Mahmoud Abbas was the Prime Minister, and I realized very quickly that he was not in a position of authority and that it was not likely that the peace process was going to continue or that the cease-fire was going to continue. Very quickly, after myself and the rest of the congressional delegation left, the violence began again, Abbas ceased to be the Prime Minister, and we went through essentially another year, over a year of violence, if not longer than a year.
I hope that this time is different. I hope that because of the overtures and the steps that Ariel Sharon has taken, that we can see now a situation where Abbas is ready to negotiate and to end the violence. But I do think it is incumbent upon President Bush to make that point, that we are not going to see peace, we are not going to see any new negotiations, we are not going to see any roadmap unless Abbas and the Palestinian Authority immediately take steps to ensure that there is peace and that violence does not continue.