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Robbins: With a crucial debt deal, score one for the adults

By Jeff Robbins - | Jun 7, 2023

In his new book “The Watchdog: How the Truman Committee Battled Corruption and Helped Win World War Two,” journalist Steve Drummond tells the little-known story of how a little-known Senate committee headed by a little-known senator from Missouri led a bipartisan battle to strengthen America by exposing self-interest and waste in our military establishment. Regarded by students of Congress as The Gold Standard of congressional investigations for its effectiveness, the investigation was conceived by Harry Truman and spearheaded by him. Formed in 1941, when the Nazis were rapidly overrunning Europe and America was utterly unprepared for what lay ahead, the Truman Committee proved to be a model of bipartisanship, as much a relic of the past as a telephone booth.

It was a time when Republicans and Democrats viewed themselves as competitors, with different ideas about getting to the same place, rather than as bitter enemies. Despite the GOP’s venom toward President Franklin Roosevelt, just elected to his third term, and plenty of division about whether American should enter the European war, Americans still fundamentally rowed in the same direction.

It was, in short, a different time. Truman, a Democrat, proposed to run an investigation that would expose and publicize the failures of a Democratic administration that was trying to rally the country for eventual entry into the war. The Roosevelt administration approved the investigation and cooperated with it. The Democrat-run committee held hearings and issued reports that pointed out what a Democratic administration was doing wrong. The Republicans on the committee were treated as equals and, for their part, refrained from partisanship.

The result was an improved national defense program, one which, after delays when the attack on Pearl Harbor abruptly accelerated our need to defend ourselves, succeeded in providing the materiel needed to liberate Europe and defeat the Japanese.

America got a taste of old-fashioned bipartisanship last week, and a much-needed one at that. With our government on the brink of default on its debt and financial calamity imminent, Democrats and Republicans, led by President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, respectively, functioned as the grown-ups in the proverbial room, striking a compromise that extended the debt limit for two years and protected Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other vital programs while also cutting some spending. Biden and McCarthy stared down their parties’ fringes to get the deal done, with 77% of House Democrats and 70% of House Republicans approving a compromise that passed by a 314 to 117 vote.

Neither Biden nor McCarthy had an easy task. Progressive Democrats were prepared to play a dangerous game of “chicken,” risking a disastrous default rather than agreeing to an even modest rollback in spending. MAGA Republicans, aka the Chaos Caucus, seemed positively eager to implode the economy and the markets so that Biden could be blamed. To his credit, McCarthy opted to be the adult in the Republican conference, a particularly unenviable assignment given its composition and the frayed thread by which McCarthy’s speakership hangs.

The president may have driven home the deal that saved America from economic collapse, and fresh jobs and growth reports may have sent the financial markets soaring, but the week wasn’t a total loss for his detractors. The man tripped on a sandbag protruding on a stage at the Air Force Academy, giving Biden-haters the opportunity to crow because, well, the man tripped. Thus did Sandbag-Gate become an issue in the 2024 presidential campaign.

Still, it was a good week for the big girls and boys, and one that could not help but make one remember what once was and what might be — even if barely conceivably — once again. “Our teams were able to get along, get things done, were straightforward with one another, completely honest with one another,” said Biden in an Oval Office address the night the compromise passed Congress. “Both sides operated in good faith. Both sides kept their word.” Somewhere, maybe, Harry Truman is nodding approvingly.

Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.


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