hardline political news and analysis

Month: May, 2017

“Mr. Tax”

Forty-four years to the day since the Senate’s Watergate Committee began its hearings in the Russell Building’s ornate Caucus Room, friends and relatives of former House and Senate staffer Ed Greelegs gathered in the historic chamber – now named for Ted Kennedy – for his memorial. Once again, the federal government is mired in crisis and disbelief as a presidency appears to crumble before our collective eyes, but in the hearing room where Sam Ervin once presided, the speakers recalled a better time in this history of the Congress and the invaluable role Ed Greelegs played in making the machinery of government work for ordinary Americans.

In a world where most of the memorable characters have “Honorable” before their names, Eddie stood out as a personality you simply could not help but like and certainly could never forget. Funny, wry, knowledgeable, compassionate and well read to an unimaginable degree, Ed Greelegs was unique. With a pompadour of grey hair and a salt and pepper beard (I always thought: “Billy Joel clone”), a raspy voice and expressive hands, Ed stood out in the buttoned down world of Capitol Hill. Speaker after speaker recalled how he would engage with elevator operators, committee chairmen, young staffers trying to figure out the labyrinths of the Hill, and lobbyists whom he rarely hesitated to chastise or support, whichever was more appropriate.

Among the speakers at the memorial service were two of his former employers, Democratic Whip Dick Durbin and former Congressman Marty Russo (he also worked for Reps. Sam Gejdenson and Bob Eckhardt). Both men have represented Illinois ably, but are very different: Durbin the calm voice of reason, Russo the hard-nosed pol. Ed served both well by diligently handling legislative duties, by working collaboratively with staff, and by performing that vital service every legislator needs from a staffer: telling them when they are wrong. Russo recalled how, after casting a controversial vote that left him feeling estranged from his staff and colleagues, Greelegs reminded him that, while they disagreed on the policy call, he – and the rest of the staff – were there to support their boss unquestioningly. Russo said the conversation changed his life.

Ed loved policy – he modestly entitled himself “Mr. Tax” for his work on the Ways and Means Committee. Efforts to recast his career as a downtown lobbyist, like so many of his staff colleagues, just didn’t work for him, and he soon abandoned Gucci Gulf for the more familiar venue of the Congress. Like many of us who worked in an atmosphere fewer and fewer recall (or even believe is possible), Ed regularly reached across party lines to figure out how to serve constituents or for a cause, because that is how you succeed in politics. He was the proverbial go-to guy who got things done, without partisan rhetoric and without drawing attention, or credit, to himself.

I spent less time talking with Ed about tax policy than about history, one of his many academic passions. Friends at the memorial, including his wife Susan and Russo, recalled the unbelievable clutter of books, newspapers and magazines that marked Ed’s desk at work and study at home. It was a rare topic on which Ed could not only hold forth knowledgeably but also offer scholarly citations to back up his viewpoints. It was impossible to leave any conversation with Ed without feeling that you had certainly learned more than you had contributed, and yet Ed never exuded a scintilla of intellectual elitism or arrogance.

Ed became ill some ago and his health suffered periodic setbacks in recent years. He passed away on March 28 at just 66, decades before he should have left us. The wide assemblage of members, former members, staff and ex-staff, lobbyists and others who filled the Kennedy Caucus Room with tears, applause and laughter was a fitting testimonial to the achievements and modesty of a really good guy who will be sorely missed.


Congress Should Summon Trump to Testify

President Trump’s decision to fire FBI director Richard Comey is fueling comparisons to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973. In an act of executive arrogance, Nixon discharged the man heading the investigation into the White House’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. Both Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resigned their positions rather than comply with the order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Ten months after ordering Cox’ dismissal, Nixon himself resigned and was succeeded by the recently appointed Vice President Gerald Ford, the longtime, popular Republican Leader of the House of Representatives. But relief over the ending of the “long national nightmare,” as Ford had characterized the Watergate saga, quickly evaporated when the new President issued a pardon to his disgraced predecessor in September, 1974. “That son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch!” Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exclaimed to his Watergate collaborator, Bob Woodward. As Ford’s popularity plummeted, Democratic candidates exulted that Ford had clumsily re-injected controversy into the political atmosphere just two months before the election (which yielded a 49-seat gain for House Democrats).

Many in Congress questioned whether Ford had promised Nixon a pardon in return for his resignation, a charge Ford angrily denied. Ford returned to Capitol Hill to give his account of the pardon decision to the same Judiciary Committee members who had voted to impeach his predecessor. Under intense but respectful questioning, Ford steadfastly denied having cut a deal to ease Nixon out so that he might assume the presidency. Subsequent revelations, however, suggest that Ford had considered an offer from White House chief of staff Alexander Haig to issue a pardon in return for Nixon quitting. Ford told Haig he “needed time to think about it,” a statement that left several aides apoplectic. “You can’t do that,” Ford aide John Marsh exclaimed, according to an account by Woodward. “It would look like a quid pro quo for Nixon’s resignation!” Indeed, the following year, Judiciary Committee members narrowly defeated an effort to open an inquiry into Ford’s alleged deal with Haig.

The aftermath of the Ford pardon mirrors the inter-branch conflict that now afflicts the Trump Administration, and one way to resolve the suspicion surrounding the motives for firing Comey would be for Trump, like Ford, to answer the charges publicly before the Congress. Indeed, since the decision to oust Comey was unquestionably made by the President alone, the only way Congress or the public will ever know the basis for the controversial removal is to hear from the President in open testimony.

Comey’s firing is not the only issue on which Congress has an obligation to interrogate President Trump. He also fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates in January after she warned the brand new President that his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, was “compromised with the Russians.” Five weeks later, Trump also fired the U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office would likely have prosecuted campaign violations that occurred in New York. The systematic removal of three law enforcement officials looking into the Trump-Russia connection presents a “deeply troubling pattern,” in the words of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. Congress has an obligation to question the President about these dubious decisions.

Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s response to the Comey ouster is to, once again, shrug off calls for a special prosecutor, preferring to leave the inquiry with congressional committees. But if McConnell is serious about a Senate investigation, he should join with Democratic leaders and invite the President to come to Capitol Hill, as did President Ford, to clear the air.

Of course, Trump is unlikely to voluntarily subject himself to questions from Congress. It is not as easy to walk away from a congressional committee as it is to abruptly terminate an uncomfortable interview, as Trump recently did with John Dickerson of CBS News. But Trump’s understandable reticence should not influence Congress’ responsibility to conduct reasonable oversight into the Comey firing. No sound inquiry can occur without the person at the center of the storm – Donald Trump – being sworn in and testifying.