Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bachmann and the Budget Buccaneers

Bachmann and the Budget Buccaneers

There is a wonderful bit in The Philadelphia Story. It’s the morning of the wedding, and a couple of hangovers are being nursed.  Things are tense between Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) and her fiancée, George Kittredge. Kittredge is understandably upset that the somewhat tipsy Tracy has just had an “affair” with another man, Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart.) George demands an explanation, and Connor obliges. “Mr. Kittredge, it may interest you to know that our so-called affair consisted of exactly two kisses and one rather late swim both of which I thoroughly enjoyed and the memory of which I wouldn't part with for anything.”  When Tracy protests by asking whether she was so unattractive and forbidding, Connor replies she was very attractive, and as for forbidding, on the contrary, but she “was also a little the worse for wine, and there are rules about those things.”

All of us know that there is no way that Jimmy Stewart would ever break the rules.  He’s Jimmy Stewart, an exemplar (as was Henry Fonda and, in a different way, John Wayne) for a type of distinctly American integrity.  There are things you don’t do, no matter how tempted, even if you can, and sometimes especially because you can.  I love those rules, not just because I’m the father of a teenaged daughter, but also because I’m a social contract kind of guy.  I think democracy works best when there is little less purity and a little more give and take.  If one side is picking up all the chips, just because it can, the losers are just going to be lying in the weeds, waiting for the first time there’s a kneecap exposed.

Up until about twenty years ago, Washington was populated by people who also believed in the rules.  That doesn’t mean they were saints.  Rather, they shared a consensus about basic facts, how things should be done, and what regular order meant.  They horse-traded, swapped votes, shared earmarks, fought when they had to, and compromised most of the time.  There were always crazy people and rules-breakers; the Republicans had their Bob Dornans and the Democrats their Cynthia McKinneys, but policy was made from the center out, not from the fringe in.  People respected the process.

That was then.  We live in different times, where craziness is now seen as a desirable attribute and rules as almost corrupt. This past week, one of the truly great rule-breakers, Michelle Bachmann, announced that she would not run for reelection in 2014.  Her eight-plus minute announcement, posted on her website, is a classic of the Bachmann genre, and I urge you to drink it in.  The thumbnail version is a hard slap at the mainstream media, of which she is the victim; several over-the-top slams at Mr. Obama in particular (“despicable”) and the Democrats in general, a large dollop of self praise for supporting both a balanced budget and the pork for her District, and her personal bravery in calling out Muslims everywhere.

Of course, Bachmann is not the type of person of whom you would expect either great self-knowledge or modesty. But to demean her is to ignore her obvious appeal to a portion of the GOP electorate, bizarre utterances or not. Remember, this is a person who won the Iowa Caucuses, and who briefly led in the primary polls.   She did so by laying out a program that distinguished itself by it’s uncompromisingly hard right approach sprinkled with enough sheer kookiness to satisfy the paranoid set.  Bachmann is the surströmming of the political system.  Some people, unaccountably, really like it. 

Bachmann, for all of her national prominence, was a particularly ineffective legislator.  In her eight years in Congress, her record is completely devoid of any accomplishments. That, unfortunately, is in concert with much of the rest of her caucus.  The House these days seems to exist for only two purposes, a) to obstruct, defund, and repeal Obamacare and b) to conduct endless investigations. 

What about the budget?  Well, the House did vote out a budget, the steroidal Ryan Plan.  But the Senate won’t cooperate.  Senate Democrats also voted out a budget, as the GOP demanded, and it included Mr. Obama’s proposal (thoroughly loathed by liberal groups) for a substantial hack at entitlements.  Like the House’s version, it also passed on a party line vote.

So, now we have two bills, the House’s GOP version, and the Senate’s Democratic/Obama version.  Next stop, the “Conference Committee” where senior members who are appointed by the presiding officers of the committees that originally dealt with the bill are sent to bargain and hash out a compromise.  Sounds good; maybe the Congress can actually do the job we send them there to do?

Not so fast. Having a Conference requires Conferees.  And the Senate doesn’t have any.  Why?  Because three Republican Senators say no Conferees until the Democrats who go agree not to utter the phrase “Debt Ceiling.”  And, why the gag order?  Because these three have no intention of bargaining in good faith.  Instead, they want an extra bite at the apple: concessions in the Senate, more in Conference, and then even more extortion when the debt ceiling has to be raised. They don’t care that the Senate just voted and they lost.  Like pirates, they will hold the sword to the throat of the damsel in distress until they get what they want, process, and rules, be dammed. 

Now, you might ask yourself who these hostage-taking buccaneers might be?  Three Men of Tea:  Utah’s Mike Lee, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida, supported by the ever-amiable Ted Cruz of Texas.   That is a lot of ambition in one room.  Paul and Rubio really want to be President, as soon as possible, and this the way to raise their street-cred with the hard-right gunslingers.  Cruz doesn’t need more street-cred, but he aims higher--more in the Henry VIII line of King and Supreme Head of the Church. By the way, in case your were counting, these four have a combined six years in office. 

What about Mitch McConnell?  He knows what the rules are.  But he’s also worried about a primary challenge in Kentucky, so he’s met privately with the four almost a dozen times, and is tacitly supporting them. In the meantime, the country will just have to wait.  Personal and ideological agendas are far more important than the national interest. 

In fairness, there are a number of other GOP Senators trying to find a common ground. Senators McCain, Collins, Corker, and Blunt are pushing back.  There is concern among rational conservatives that scorched earth can’t support any type of life.  And, because these are practical people, at least most of the time, they understand that you fracture the bargaining process when you keep moving the goal posts, and you do so at your future peril. You don’t necessarily have to go as far as Churchill, who once said If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”  But sooner or later, the shoe will be on the other foot, and people have a funny war of remembering who stepped on them.  Rules matter.

That doesn’t always mean it’s pretty, or you will want to send flowers to the other side.  As much as I love Hepburn, Stewart, and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story, some of the best lines come from Ruth Hussey, who plays Liz, Stewart’s savvy and occasionally sardonic photographer and girlfriend.  After Connor defends Tracy’s honor and pronounces his devotion to the rules, she follows with “I think men are wonderful.” 

And Liz responds “The dears.”

The movie does have a happy ending.  Maybe we should send the DVD?