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Bill Orton
(D-Long Beach)

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Red Meat for a Blue State

Clean Government, Civility and Cooperation

by Bill Orton

Saturday, November 11, 2006 -- As a Democrat, I urge leaders of my own party to pay close attention to three themes that are getting short shift in how this week's midterm elections are being spun.

There's talk about the "5 Rs" for Iraq and the "6 in '06" referring to the half-dozen votes on policy direction that Democrats will hold after taking power.

By and large, those are all fine, as the voters accepted a Democratic alternative, and my party ran on a populist agenda that included a higher minimum wage, health care reform, returning to fiscal discipline and a new course for Iraq. The party must move on the promises it made to the people to remain credible.

But absent in the talk is any substantial mention of how to change the culture of corruption that ensnared the Republican party and appears to have cost them control of congress.

Here in California, corruption led directly to the loss of Richard Pombo, who ate from the Abramoff trough. Not even the appearance of the President could raise enough money to offset both the taint of scandal and the distaste voters here in California hold for George Bush.

In exit polls, 42% of voters identified "corruption" as "the most important" factor in deciding their vote. And taking the question further, fully one-third of evangelic voters said they voted Democratic because of the corruption issue.

Further, a survey of the California vote shows that Republicans stayed home in droves in areas of the state where the GOP must dominate if they are to have a chance at gaining a sweeping statewide victory. Arnold ran well, but that was in spite of GOP voters staying home in Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino, and elsewhere.

The tremendous gains made by Democrats -- including Pombo's defeat -- would not have been possible, it seems, without an electorate driven to the polls (or staying home in droves) by a pervasive mood of disgust with how things are done in Washington.

California stands to gain in the new Congress, not simply because of the change in leaders, but because the agenda put forward by our party fits well with the values of people in our state, namely that diversity is a strength and that all Americans deserve a shot at opportunity.

Promises made must be promises kept, and good luck to Nancy Pelosi in gaining the Speakership and guiding Democrats to success on the policies the party ran on.

Iraq clearly is an issue on which Americans by and large agree that the direction must be changed. But a new course for Iraq cannot be determined in the same fashion as the President and his party pursued.

The new Speaker should show through her own actions that she gives large questions over to prominent figures of both parties, and charges those individual members with the responsibility of acting in her name to conceive and gather support for policies that enjoy broad consensus from the American people.

To this end, I recommend that Ms. Pelosi name John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania) and Walter Jones (R-North Carolina) to head a Speaker's Task Force on Iraq and give these two gentleman the duty of forming a working group across party lines that is free from the institutional oversight role of a standing committee.

If Mr. Murtha and Mr. Jones carried the Speaker's name in the conduct of their duties, it is certain that any product they put forward would result in a change in the direction of American policy and that it would be a plan that honors our brave fighting men and women.

Likewise, if the Speaker turned to Republicans such as Charlie Norwood (R-Georgia) to work on health care or Dan Lungren (R-California) to assist with port security, then these eminent voices could help Democratic leaders to frame legislation in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation in ways unthinkable just weeks ago.

Civility leads to cooperation and a culture of open debate within the Congress. Robert Dole and Bob Michel understood this. It was the cannibalism set forth by Newt Gingrich going after Speaker Jim Wright that poisoned the well. It's time to clear the waters.

Nancy Pelosi has said that the next Congress will be the cleanest in the history of the Republic. Knowing that she is a leader who keeps her word, that promise is one likely to be kept. And with a figure like Howard Berman likely to move from vice chair to leader of the ethics committee, there will be an able Californian to bring new life into that essential post.

But I would suggest an even more broad plan for clean government. Civil conduct and bipartisan cooperation will help to heal the divide of this nation, but crocodiles still swim in a swamp. Clearing the waters means draining the ethical swamp.

The Democratic caucus should propose tightening the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law to close the "527-committee" loophole that allows millions of unregulated dollars to flood the airwaves with ads that the law was meant to do away with. In its place, the Congress should write into law the fairness doctrine (requiring free airtime for opposing viewpoints), a rule that was done away with bureaucratically under Ronald Reagan.

Each house of the Congress should also adopt rules that ban Congressional members or staff from taking any gift, meal or travel paid for a lobbyist.

Through action, rules and leadership, the Democrats can show that the affairs of Congress will be conducted in a civil tone.

Dwight Eisenhower was correct that you cannot legislate the human heart, but a lawmaker should not be able to use the halls of congress as a battlefield for rancor and personal attack, as the real losers are the American people.

The Democratic party won overwhelming victories because voters used a big broom to sweep clean a culture of corruption and incivility.

It would be foolhardy for Democrats to take the reigns of power assuming that they merely are switching chairs. Democratic leaders, like Nancy Pelosi, must press for an end to the culture of corruption if the electorate is to believe that the new winners deserve their ongoing support.


Bill Orton is a writer and historian living in Long Beach, California.