Do Nothings and Know Nothings
Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West.
If you worked at a place where barely one in 10 people approved of what you did, if you took a six-figure salary for a job that let you go on “recess” for about 29 weeks of the year, and if you were addressed as “honorable” for said employment, you might suffer an occasional bout of shame.
Or you could fight back. How else to explain a proposal in the 112th Congress — that is, the one known as worst, ever — to ban the word “lunatic” from federal law.
Sure, the honorable gentlemen behind the measure say they want to reduce the stigma of mental illness. But they may also be trying to shield themselves from a public that has their number.
The House run by John Boehner is stuffed with zealots and intellectual dead-enders who think compromise is a synonym for treason. Americans agree on very little, but there seems to be shore-to-shore consensus on a view of this Congress: We hate you.
Not, of course, individually, as about 85 percent of the current members can expect to glide to reelection without ever having to explain why they will not govern. But, as an institution, this Congress is very, very sick.
So it is encouraging to see two longtime Washington wise men — Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, sensible, nonpartisan scholars and impeccably credentialed authors of good advice that no one ever follows — come out with a full-blown polemic against the Republicans who have steered Congress off a cliff.
“In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted,” Mann and Ornstein write in “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” their new book on our dyspeptic politics. “Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.”
They describe the G.O.P. as “an insurgent outlier,” and cite studies that Republicans are now more conservative they have been since, well, the era when women could not vote, blacks could not share the same public space as whites and the income tax was a distant dream of a forward-thinking Republican reformer, Theodore Roosevelt.
It’s not just the “appalling spectacle of hostage taking,” as Mann and Ornstein described last year’s budget crises, when Republicans threatened government shutdown and public default in the name of fiscal responsibility. If the House majority were really fiscally responsible they would at least close tax loopholes. But they won’t, because 238 of the 242 House Republicans have taken a pledge to Grover Norquist to never raise revenues, shirking their duty to put country first.
Nor is it the pathos of Republicans who let the most dangerous demagogues among them — highlighted by freshman Representative Allen West, whose latest absurd claim is that up to 81 Democrats in Congress are members of the Communist Party — lie without censure.
But these people with an R on their jerseys are harming the country, acting like “an apocalyptic cult” as a veteran Republican staffer, Mike Lofgren, cited by Mann and Ornstein, described his party last year.
What we got with the 2010 election was a group that creates its own facts. They deny the elemental fiscal math that the United States will never balance its books without raising somebody’s taxes. And they deny elemental science, going so far as to vote as a group that global warming caused by man essentially does not exist.
Perhaps it’s better, then, that the 112th has passed fewer laws than any Congress in at least 40 years. What do they do with their time? Take a look at Eric Cantor’s 2012 House calendar. Half of April, half of May, and nearly every day from August all the way to Election Day, members of Congress are off on something called “constituent work week,” also known as “recess,” or junketeering, fund-raising, vacationing or campaigning.
On the rare days when Congress is in session, somebody in the People’s House will rise to say they are following the will of the people. But on the big issues, this is preposterous. A big majority of Americans want taxes raised on millionaires who pay a lower rate than their secretaries. A CNN poll in April found that nearly three-quarters of the public favored the so-called Buffett rule.
If Congress were representative of the public, you’d see some of that will of the people in the vote. Yet all but five of 234 Republicans present voted against this basic act of fairness. And in the Senate, it couldn’t even get past the filibuster threshold to allow for some debate, let alone a vote.
Just now, Republicans say they want to prevent student loan rates from doubling, which will happen soon if the Do Nothings do nothing. They passed a bill in the House, but it raids health care to pay for it, ensuring a veto. This balancing would be fine if Republicans were consistent. They aren’t. The Bush tax cuts will end up costing $2 trillion over a decade, but this huge debt is treated as a trifle by the reality-denying majority in Congress.
I would add one other big consideration to all of the above: these people in Congress, and this mess, are the voters’ fault. We put Democrats in control in 2008, and they’d no sooner started to govern when we put Republicans in charge. We get the Congress we deserve, and when Republicans gained 63 seats in the House in the 2010 elections, voters took a chance with a sustained temper tantrum.
At least in 2010, the insurgents were an unknown commodity, produced by the faux populism of talk radio and the Tea Party. If this majority is voted back in, we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves for a democracy that, at this moment, no longer has the will to self-govern.