Saturday, August 04, 2007

Fools on the Hill No More

Ever since Newton Leroy Gingrich brought his schoolyard bully tactics to Congress in 1994, I had been calling the folks there the "fools on the Hill," after the eponymous Beatles song. I was building up steam to do some bipartisan clobbering in and post a scathing attack on the Democratic majority when, in the last few weeks before heading off to their recess this month, they finally got some important things passed.
Day after day,
alone on the hill
The man with the foolish grin
is keeping perfectly still
Unlike the "Nowhere Man" -- about whom the Beatles asked "Isn't he a bit like you and me?" -- the fool of the song never gives an answer and no one really likes him. A bit like Congress throughout the decades.

Part of it is that it's pretty hard to follow the antics of 535 mostly older guys who know their way around the arcane rules that allow them to do pretty much whatever they want. They can't do that? Sure they can, they make the laws; if they don't like 'em, they can tweak 'em to their liking.

This year the Democratic majority came in like gangbusters with their 100 hours of introduced placeholder bills which, in the tradition invented by Gingrich's fellow bullies, consisted mainly of catchy titles and bill numbers -- for the most part, no legislative language.

It's a trick they learned from the Republicans. You run a blank sheet through all the hoops with your majority until the "bill" gets to the floor; then you dump 400 pages at the clerk's office the night before and let the opposition burn the midnight oil, while you strategize on how to block their amendments anyway.

That's how Congress ran under the GOP majority and that's part of the source of the much storied and truly distasteful acrimony -- I always felt I left Capitol Hill with bile all over my clothes. It wasn't that the politicians were being childish, it was that the GOP ran circles around the constitutional process in order to govern as a one-party state, as every party that has come to power through a coup (remember the 2000 election?) has always done.

The Democrats have changed the feel of things. They are holding themselves to at least the letter of fiscal discipline under "PayGo" rules that require that every new expenditure be offset with either a cut or new taxes. No more Reagan and Bush deficits of hundreds of billions; you want a balanced budget, vote Democratic.

They are also being pretty reasonable about debate. When the Repubs held the majority, every hearing was stacked with witnesses who were each more right-wing than the next, and you didn't see anyone goose-step into a hearing chamber just because it's not the American style. The Democrats are smarter; sure they hold the majority, so most of the witnesses are their hand-picked folks, but they allow the minority a voice or two.

It's a debate that the Democratic majority will win push come to shove, but it's one in which liberals aren't afraid to let the conservatives shoot themselves in the foot with the facts -- because face it, it's not just that I don't like conservatives, it's that on the facts they're wrong, wrong, wrong. And they know it (which is why they didn't like debate when they held the reins).

The feel of Congress has been better. The Democrats get the coveted "can play well with others" in their report card.

But what about substance? Bush has essentially stonewalled them on the attorneys and Gonzales (see a cute column about his name here); the Democrats have gotten nowhere with Iraq.

Of course, some supporters' want presidential impeachment proceedings on reasonable grounds. After all, which presidential lie has had more dire consequences: "I did not have sex with that woman" or "Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant"? Yet the wisdom of the Democrats' course of inaction becomes obvious about as fast as you can say "President Cheney."

When I was beginning to get steamed even the federal minimum wage hike -- the first in 10 years, count 'em -- was stalled.

What were these Democrats elected for, if not to show some spine?

I am mildly pleased to report now that they finally got the minimum wage through -- veto threat notwithstanding -- and the raise became effective last month. Indeed, the recurrent and fatuous warnings of the restaurant industry didn't pan out: employment in their very own food and beverage sector increased after the wage hike went into effect.

There's more, just this month they renewed the food stamp program -- OK, so they gave it a silly new name, the "Secure Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program," and paid pork to some big agribusiness interests to get it through.

Just this past week they fought off Bush and the insurance lobby and expanded the state-run Children’s Health Insurance Program, which will provide free health care to an added 4.1 million poor children -- albeit using an extremely tortuous legislative method in the Senate.

This is clearly B+ work. Anyone who can't abide the moral ambiguities should not, as Bismarck recommended, watch sausages or legislation being made.

Now if they can fix some of the spending bills in September and override Bush vetoes (he wants to veto CHIP expansion, for example), I'd say these folks are no longer merely fools. They might just earn an A.
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