Back in February, during the Democrats' frenzied rush to pass the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, Republican Sen. David Vitter offered a simple, 28-word amendment: “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used directly or indirectly to fund the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.” Vitter's amendment was shot down, 51-45, with all the votes coming from the Democratic majority.
At about the same time, GOP lawmakers introduced similar measures in the House. Those, too, were defeated by Democratic majorities.
Fast-forward to Monday, Sept. 14. A Housing Department appropriations bill was moving through the Senate, and Republican Sen. Mike Johanns offered an amendment that was nearly word-for-word identical to the one Vitter introduced back in February, barring all federal housing funds for ACORN. This time, the ACORN-defunding amendment passed, 83-7. The winning total included 50 — yes, 50 — Democrats. Liberals like Chris Dodd, Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, Charles Schumer and others who supported ACORN back in February all changed their votes to approve the cutoff of funds.
That was just a preview of what would happen on Thursday, across the Capitol in the House of Representatives. Just 48 hours after Republican Leader John Boehner introduced the “Defund ACORN Act,” which would ban all federal funds for the group, the House Democratic leadership agreed to a vote on the bill. Boehner's measure passed 345-to-75, with 172 Democrats voting to cut off funds for an organization that had long worked on behalf of Democrats nationwide.
It was an absolutely mind-blowing turn of events, a total collapse of longtime Democratic support for ACORN. Republicans had worked for years to reduce ACORN's influence, with little success. Now, in the span of a few days, the GOP scored major victories.
Everybody knows why. None of this would have happened had it not been for undercover videos, released on the new Web site BigGovernment, which caught ACORN employees in Baltimore, Washington, New York City and California in the act of encouraging tax fraud and prostitution, including prostitution involving underage girls. The videos, which were ignored by most big media organizations other than Fox News, had a huge effect on Capitol Hill.
“I was stunned by what I saw,” says Johanns, who has had his eye on ACORN since joining the Senate in January. “I just could not believe that you could have a situation where people were so complacent, so complicit, in what was clearly activity that was not only illegal but just unbelievably wrong.”
The BigGovernment videos came in the wake of news that arrest warrants had been issued for 11 former ACORN workers in Florida accused of forging hundreds of voter registration applications. In light of those revelations, lawmakers who once felt confident voting on ACORN's behalf were forced to reconsider; a vote for ACORN was no longer safe. In literally hours, years of Democratic sponsorship of ACORN virtually disappeared.
There are still many steps ahead. Johanns and others have introduced a new bill, the “Protect Taxpayers from ACORN Act,” which would do the same thing as the total-defunding bill in the House. If it passes, there will be a conference committee to reach agreement on a final version of the bill, which will then have to pass the House and Senate before winning President Obama's signature. At any point along the way, Democrats might reverse themselves and again take up ACORN's cause.
Then there is what Republicans see as Part Two of the process. For the GOP, the goal is not just to cut off ACORN's federal money. It's to get to the bottom of all the allegations of corruption at ACORN and affiliated organizations around the country. On Tuesday, Johanns sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging a Justice Department investigation into the full range of ACORN allegations. Rep. Lamar Smith in the House made a similar request. No word yet on what Holder will decide.
There's no way to know how it will end. But it's now a fact that there are on-the-record votes of large majorities of Democrats favoring the total cutoff of federal funds for ACORN — a virtually unheard-of possibility just one week ago. What a difference a video can make.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on www.ExaminerPolitics.com ExaminerPolitics.com.