Friday, December 18, 2009

Reflections on the Congressional Train Wreck

I've been back in the US for a while now, and between work and law school I haven't had much of a chance to travel. So, I'm going to try my hand at making this a non-travel blog for a while.

These days, I find that reading the news is like watching a train wreck. I don't want to do it, because it's only going to leave me feeling unsettled and intensely aware of both my own mortality and the immensity of human folly for the rest of the day, but it's impossible to ignore. There's also the whole "as a voter in a democratic republic, I ought to be informed" argument. But there aren't any elections anytime soon, so maybe I could make a New Year's resolution not to read the news for a couple of weeks. As resolutions go, this one would be pretty self-indulgent, aimed more at obtaining a bit of peace of mind and not so much at improving myself as a person. It's hard to argue that being informed is a vice.

At any event, the train wreck that's on my mind today is Congress. Maybe if I write about it I can get it off my mind long enough to get some work done. That might be better than just not reading the news.

Right now, Congressional Republicans are pursuing a Taliban-esqe strategy. I certainly don't mean the comparison in any moral sense. While I'm not on board with the "conservative platform" I would never compare it to the morally abhorrent agenda that those lunatics in Afghanistan and Pakistan call an ideology. That type of hyperbole simply isn't constructive. Rather, I mean to say that the Taliban and Congressional Republicans are playing the same game. For each group, "winning" is a matter of denying victory to the other side. They don't have to actually bring anything constructive to the table, they don't have to offer any solutions to a problem. All they have to do is keep the people who actually are trying to accomplish something from doing so. The Taliban simply has to keep the US and NATO from accomplishing their military objectives, and the Republicans simply have to filibuster long enough to prevent the Democrats from actually governing.

Leaving aside the (admittedly debatable) merits of the healthcare bill for the moment, there is something incredibly screwed up about this. I've been trying to think it through. Let's ignore the massive deficits of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations for the moment and accept, arguendo, the assertion that the Republican party is not simply trying to score a political victory against President Obama, and is in fact about fiscal responsibility and small government. Fair enough. I accept that. In fact, I really like the idea of small government. In an ideal world, Ron Paul would be my favorite politician. I would love it if, with the exception of minimal taxes that went to pay for basic national defense and infrastructure, the federal government left me entirely to my own devices and didn't ask me to pay for a whole raft of things that I didn't think we should have.

But we don't live in an ideal world. This sounds like a statement of the obvious, and it should be, but it also seems to be a point that's been lost on a great many American politicians. After the New Deal, there's just no getting around the fact that we have a huge, expensive federal government that is such a constant presence in all of our lives that we're not always aware that it's there. Whether you believe that it ought to be there or not is just as irrelevant as whether or not you believe in gravity. It's there, and it's not going away. Any kind of political solution that doesn't at least accept this fact as a given is just as impractical and dangerous as jumping off a roof and not accepting the fact that you're going to fall.

Thus, you would think that any political platform advocating small government and offering it as a viable solution would be limited to fringe candidates from third parties that will never win any significant election. But small government is the rallying cry of one of the two major American political parties, and the implications are troubling.

How do you manage a system using an ideology that is inherently opposed to the very system you are trying to run? It brings to mind a quote from The Onion in reference to Bush's nomination of John Bolton as Ambassador to the UN back in 2005: "Appointing Bolton to the UN is like appointing a fish to ride a bicycle that he hates and wishes to destroy." That puts it pretty succinctly. Reagan's famous quote that "government is the problem" is a self-fulfilling prophesy that creates a vicious cycle when adopted by people elected to govern. If you come into office believing that government is incapable of solving problems, then of course you're not going to try to appoint competent problem solvers to government positions (see Michael Brown, appointed as head of FEMA to George W. Bush). Then, when a crisis arises, and the government fails to address it adequately (see Hurricane Katrina), you can say "See? I told you so," and rest comfortably on your earlier assertion that government is incapable of solving problems. QED.

So where does this leave us? With a legislative process in which only one party seems interested in actually governing. Meanwhile, any Republican in the Senate who actually shows an interest in governing (i.e., actually doing their job) risks being branded a traitor to the cause (see Lindsey Graham on climate change). This is not good for democracy. Right now we have a single-party state with all of the disadvantages thereof (lack of vigorous and meaningful policy debate) but none of the advantages (actually getting something done).

So, this is what I want to see happen to the Republican Party: First, I want to see the party tear itself to shreds in internecine fighting. I want to see midterm elections in which the tea party extremists on the far right turn out in record numbers in the primaries to nominate whackos who will prove unelectable to national office rather than incumbents. Democrats who might have been crushed by electable Republican incumbent can then eke out wins over the teabaggers, go to Congress, and actually give the Democrats enough votes that they can govern America without having to pander to [EXPLETIVE DELETED] like Joe Lieberman. Maybe pass a few pieces of legislation on crucial issues before it's too late. Then, I want the Republican party to take a good, hard look at itself, get its shit together, and actually stand for something other than obstructionism again. Until they do that, the country is not going to be in great shape.

OK, writing that actually helped. Now I'm going to try and finish some papers so I don't have to take any work home for the holidays.