Monday, July 22, 2013

A confederacy of eunuchs

Due to re-districting we were to get a new Representative in the 2012 election. Although he would be new to us, he was a long time member of the House and his "new territory" now included us. To get an idea of what to expect, I attended a luncheon to hear him speak. It was a surprising and enlightening experience. Traditionally, Congress persons display a certain amount of restraint when speaking of their colleagues, regardless of their obvious stupidity or venality. 

However, in an unexpected departure from the usual "let me introduce myself" script, this gentleman took the gloves off and bluntly stated that a goodly number of his fellow representatives were less than bright. He frequently employed "clowns" as a descriptor and generally lamented the ignorance with which they approached legislation.

Although he artfully avoided specifying individuals or party, there seemed little doubt that he, like many in the "beltway", had come to the same conclusion: the arrival of the Tea Party contingent has been nothing short of a national disaster. (He may well have adopted this "no-name" strategy in conformance to Noam Chomsky's warning that "ridiculing the tea party shenanigans is a serious error.”)

Unsurprisingly, the congressman's public and scathing view was, and is, shared by the establishment elite. His case was further buttressed by a host of recently published and similarly themed books ("It's Even Worse Than It Looks", by Mann & Ornstein, "Do Not Ask What Good We Do", by Robert Draper, "Beyond Outrage", by Robert B.Reich, and "The Party is Over", by Mike Lofgren). 

Rarely have so few been so demonized by so many.

In any event, it's apparent that the (real or feigned) respect House members at one time showed each other, at least in public, has been thrown over for a newer, more aggressive, in-your-face approach. Long gone are the carefully researched position papers and informed debates which provided a rich mix of facts, history, and (occasionally) accuracy.  It seems important to figure out why this has developed and if, in fact, a functioning government is still possible.

If one studies what the House was been in the distant past and what it has evolved into, it's impossible to overlook that this body has lost (or given up) much of it's power and authority. The growth of the executive branch (the Imperial Presidency) is one factor. Back in '96 a Republican Congress and a Democrat President worked long and hard to create the first welfare reform package. Contrary to forecasts of terrible consequences, the new programs worked well. 

Yet, in one day, an Executive Order by the current President re-established the old, failed programs. Other signs of House (and Senate) weakness has been the abdication of the power to declare war, which was followed by a threat to unilaterally raising the debt ceiling, and, most recently and flagrantly, the refusal to implement part of the Obamacare package. (Under Article II, Section 3 he is required to implement the entire bill; not revise, amend, or line-item veto as the spirit moves him.)

While the Executive Order has been increasingly utilized to usurp powers constitutionally granted to the House (and Senate), the greatest loss of power has been though Congress' voluntary abandonment of authority to "regulatory agencies." 

Figuring that some issues were just to tough, complex, or time consuming, the country has had foisted upon itself the EPA, FDA, TSA, USDA (with 20 sub-agencies within it), the Dept.of Commerce (with 17 sub-agencies), Dept. of Defense (with 32 sub-agencies) and the list goes on and on. 

Each agency is staffed by unelected individuals, many with their own agendas, who dictate new regulations that carry the force of law. It's understandable that so much work has to be delegated, but to give agencies powers that were specifically meant to be held by Congress is a cynical dodge. Elected officials can be dumped for passing bad legislation; unelected bureaucrats cannot...many cannot even be fired.

Then, of course, there is "party discipline." Sam Rayburn of Texas, Speaker of the House for many, many years, gave each incoming freshman representative of his party one piece of advice: "If you want to get along, go along." And they did. Those that didn't faced many difficulties: in committee assignments, in getting their legislation to the floor, in receiving party re-election funds, and they're chances of becoming targets should redistricting become an issue.

Unfortunately, this approach worked, and worked well. As a result, many constituents found that the views they wished their midwestern representatives to promote in D.C., took a back seat to the views favored by New England party leaders - many of them with substantially different interests and goals. The "house of the people" became a house held hostage. Matters reached a new low in representative government when the other party, under Newt Gingrich, adopted the same process.

Then 2010 rolled around and enough citizens, aggravated at the apparent unresponsiveness of their representatives, threw many of them out and ushered in the Tea Party. A delicate balance had been disturbed and the both parties, used to newcomers adjusting to them, failed to realize that these "clowns" - these yahoos - actually believed in what they had declared and weren't interested in compromises. 

It is questionable whether the Tea Party will linger, prevail, or fail. Members of both parties are working against them and the "fascism" so feared by Chomsky may soon be stomped out. But for a brief period they have served as reminders that doing the people's business is serious business and that "a promise made is a debt unpaid."

For a brief period this collection of vagabonds has added a dose of virility to a confederacy of eunuchs.