The First Hundred Hours have begun. (Lest anyone wonder why they aren’t already over, new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi meant congressional working hours, not real hours.) We’ve seen Pelosi show exactly how much her own wonderfulness needs to be celebrated—and her grandiose tendency to think of herself as Mangog-like living embodiment of all the glories and splendors of her entire gender.
But what of the Democrat’s 100 Hours agenda, past celebrating Pelosi-hood? It's not worth the cannoli with which it was launched.
The ethics reform stuff deserves at least a half-hearted cheer, if only because it’s nice to see bipartisanship work at its best: not in allowing government to act more swiftly, but in generating internal tensions that drive congressmen to act against their general interest as politicians in favor of their particular interests as party members.
But the ethics changes are also mostly ceremonial acts of abasement, doing nothing to stab at the real heart of political corruption: the fact that congressmen have enormous, unprecedented, well-nigh-inhuman powers to influence, enrich, or harm the lives and businesses of Americans. Trying to cut off attempts to influence and propitiate the congressional gods is going against nature as much as legislating that water can only flow downhill so many inches per month: it’s going to end up where the facts of reality require it to go.
The cutting off of gifts to congressmen is nice, in so much as it makes life a little bit grimmer for the parasitical class. But what really hurts the rest of us is not that lobbyists are able to do politicians favors, give them rides, or buy them dinner, as that they dominate the flow of information and persuasion that reaches them. As a grand but too-little-noted book by James Payne, The Culture of Spending, argued convincingly, what is more important in swaying politicians, who are not after all consciously criminals (most of the time), is not so much that they are being implicitly bribed as that they generally hear nothing but how they need to spend this money, institute this program, do this favor, solve this emergency, and no amount of ethics reform will change that soon.
And earmark transparency—I suppose to certain policy and politics geeks it would be great to have an easy way to learn who is responsible for earmarks. But given a combination of voter ignorance and apathy (few voters have a deep and detailed knowledge of their representatives stances and actions, and really, why should they?) and the principle that bringing home the bacon for local interests (to the extent the voter is aware of it) is generally thought to help candidates, that “reform” sounds suspiciously like a briar patch—or at best an irrelevance.
“Pay as you go” spending rules that try to link spending increases with either cuts or tax raising—and, alternately, tax cuts with spending cuts or tax raises elsewhere? This is potentially a positive step toward fiscal discipline, though given the nature of D.C. priorities more a guarantee of no more tax cuts than no more spending hikes. While the language in H. Res. 6 on rules for the 110th Congress on “paygo” sound great, it also sounds too good to end up being true. Congress has managed to pass, and flout, similar rules many a time in the past. As a Heritage Foundation analysis explained, “not a single sequestration took place during PAYGO's 12 years as law. Instead, lawmakers repeatedly passed legislation that forbade OMB from enforcing PAYGO at all….The PAYGO law that existed from 1990 through 2002 exempted from sequestration Social Security, net interest on the debt, nearly all Medicare spending, and several other entitlement programs. Overall, 97 percent of all mandatory spending--all but $31 billion--had been statutorily exempted from any PAYGO sequestration, according to 2002 OMB figures.” When the new resolution on "paygo" becomes practice, it needs to stay solid in ending “emergency” appropriations and be accompanied by a severe rethinking of the autopilot entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.