The Cost of Conscience

    This is the week a major political shift takes place in Washington, DC. The Senate voted yesterday to organize under the leadership of Tom Daschle and the Democratic party. This is an unprecedented moment in American politics. For never before has the balance shifted during a session of Congress. All of this, as every American knows by now, was precipitated by Vermont Senator James Jeffords' act- of-conscience -- leaving the Republican party. I've known Jeffords casually over the years, and have every reason to believe he's an honorable man, who acted in accordance with his conscience. Those who say he was moved by petty concerns, or that he'd been snubbed by the White House, may know something I don't, but I'm perfectly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. What most Americans don't realize, however, is what all of this will cost. If you hear saws buzzing and hammers banging in the background as you watch the Senate deliberations on C-SPAN, that's simply the noise of carpenters, rebuilding most of the key offices around the Senate floor. You see, the majority leader now becomes the minority leader, and the minority leader becomes the majority leader. And what this means is that everybody switches offices, along with the thirteen Senate committee chairmen. For example, Senator Joe Biden will take over the offices of the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, previously occupied by Senator Jesse Helms. Having participated in such moves when I was in the White House, I know how extensive they can be. Paintings borrowed from the National Gallery have to be switched, memorabilia taken down, walls repainted, furniture moved, and partitions rebuilt. It will be a major shift in the physical arrangement of the Capitol -- all at considerable cost. The biggest upheaval, of course, is among congressional staff. Republicans who held the majority slots had been polishing up their résumés after Jeffords announced the big switch. But wait! The politicians have come to the rescue. Somehow the Senate leadership found $25 million to add to the $52 million already set aside for committee budgets, so GOP staffers won't be fired when the Democrats arrive. The only pain to be experienced from this transition, therefore, will be felt by the taxpayers -- and by the Senate because its agenda will be completely disrupted midstream. There have been Senators who have switched parties in the past with little disruption. Senator Jeffords might have done it that way if he had simply announced as an Independent without taking the additional step of saying he would vote to reorganize the Senate. Most Senators were surprised when he did what he did. But the biggest surprise may be the one that hits us in the pocketbook. There's no telling how many millions will be spent on this upheaval in the Senate. It reminds me of historian Paul Johnson's comment about the Indian political leader Mohandas Ghandi's decision to live in poverty. It cost a small fortune to keep the staff necessary to keep Gandhi living in poverty, Johnson wrote. Now I respect Senator Jeffords' decision, and I give him the benefit of the doubt. But it ought to be noted, in passing at least, that his act-of- conscience carries a significant cost -- to us, the taxpayers.


Chuck Colson


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