Congress

One Hundred Hours Down the Drain

The fecklessness of the new majority party.

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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.

 

The rest of the Democratic agenda is small change tossed to the faithful. Stem cell funding? A nice way to expend your energy as the new majority party—pushing a new spending idea that already had bipartisan congressional support in the old regime in order to provide Bush some more of his extremely rare veto-bait to win some more GOP faithful love.

 

The minimum wage hike? A classic bit of economic ignorance, will cost lots of poorer, less trained, and less educated people their first rung on the professional ladder--but it has the added benefit of being something the GOP will probably largely fold on, further proving that neither party has much economic sense or political guts. And rules on amendments to bills? No one cares, and for good reason. It's just more procedural folderol that evades the real problem—a government so huge in its reach and incomprehensible in its grasp that neither our "representatives" nor their staffs can possibly have a detailed, educated, sober understanding of what the hell they are voting for anyway, even with some sort of mandated 24 hours for minority party members to see a bill before it gets voted on in subcommittees or on the floor.

The further dregs of the front-loaded Democratic agenda is in those areas Democratic policy mastermind Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) thinks of as the real center of Democratic power and appeal: more middle-class entitlements, or sops to middle-class liberal sensibilities (yes, we shouldn't be subsidizing Big Oil or manipulating markets through tax policy, and we also shouldn't be subsidizing "alternative energy"). We've got slashing interest rates on college loans (more cheap cash flowing into the college market? That should cut skyrocketing higher education costs!) and trying to gin up cheaper prescription drugs through government manipulations (and potentially dry up springs of future useful drugs).

 

But what seems to be missing in this world-historic agenda? Could it be the war in Iraq, the issue that tout le punditry assured us was key in winning both houses of Congress for the Democrats? The issue that 45 percent of Americans in a CBS poll this week say should be top priority for the new Congress (more than six times the number who picked the next-most-popular choice, jobs/economy)? The issue where 71 percent expect the Democrats to ensure a reduction or removal in troops in Iraq

 

Are the Dems prepared to follow the Chris Matthews imperative, and cut funding for any surge? Cindy Sheehan may have been able to cut short a new Democratic majority press conference this week, but radical antiwar forces seem impotent to do much more to really drive the new Congress's priorities. Rep. Jane Harmon (D-Calif.) is predicting that the next emergency supplemental spending bill for Bush in Iraq will be the last. While I would love to be wrong, this seems nothing but wishful thinking. Sure, Pelosi and Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took the trouble during this busy 100-hours launch to write a sincere letter to Bush telling him they "strongly encourage you to reject any plans that call for our getting our troops any deeper into Iraq."

But Pelosi is also on record as saying "We will have oversight. We will not cut off funding." And with Bush prepared by all accounts to surge, they've already surrendered the only weapon that could turn their encouragement into true opposition. Pants-fouling fear of seeming to be "against the troops" is leading many Democrats to insist that it's somehow their job as our elected representatives to help Bush do whatever he wants in Iraq, then tut-tut about it (or run against it in 2008)?

 

What we've gotten, then, is a lot of self-glorifying pomp at public expense, some attempts to ensure certain people can't get jobs at wages other people are willing to pay them, new spending programs on items of supposed great commercial promise, no real action to effectively and permanently hobble the enormous welfare and warfare states that promise to suck all our wealth, and no sign of dedicated action on the political issue most important to Americans, the war—the issue that makes most vivid our own ultimate impotence regarding how the power of the state is used to propel our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor around the globe, no matter how many elections we suffer through.

 

While Pete Townshend's cynical/wise declaration "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" has become a painfully predictable epigram to summon, it's unfortunately a perfectly apt reaction to the painful predictability of political reality. Pelosi is the first woman to be speaker of the House—but ultimately, 100 hours of work from now or 1,000, just another speaker of the House.

 

Senior editor Brian Doherty (Bdoherty@reason.com) is author of This is Burning Man and the forthcoming Radicals for Capitalism.