Partisan Politics Extraordinaire

By Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph

The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) recently urged lawmakers to oppose the fundamentally flawed economic stimulus bill that was signed into law by President Obama on February 17. President Obama came into office, it said, promising an unprecedented initiative to jump-start the flagging economy by providing a taxpayer-funded economic stimulus that would be “timely, targeted, temporary, and transformative.” The President also forcefully promised, it said, that the final bill would contain ideas from both parties and would be accountable and transparent to taxpayers from its inception all the way down to the granular spending level.

Instead, according to CCAGW, “House and Senate leaders orchestrated a hysteria-driven, hyper-partisan spending circus designed to permanently grow federal spending, resulting in debt liabilities that will rob future generations of income and prosperity.” Tom Schatz, President of CCAGW, notes that [Congress] used the crisis to increase funding for self-serving, dubious projects and programs, as well as to make far-reaching public policy changes without meaningful and open debate.”

So what do we make of this, you and I? What’s going on? It is a question to which only a conjectural answer can be made.

But, in my opinion, America’s two-party system is floundering, and what we are seeing in today’s age of irresponsibility is evidence of that. What was originally conceived by our founding fathers as a system of checks and balances between the two houses of Congress, today is nothing but partisan politics with no apparent balance in sight.

There are many things about the internal workings of Congress that ordinary Americans know nothing about. Those workings should be far more transparent than they are, and maybe they were at one point. But what we have witnessed, for decades now, is a bunch of political elites fighting tooth and nail for things that have little to do with the public good.

Earmarks are an example

In U.S. politics an earmark is a congressional provision that allows a lawmaker to direct a specified amount of money to a project in his or her own state. These earmarked funds are intended to benefit the constituents of a politician in return for their political support. It is as simple as that. The “pork” involves funding for programs whose economic or service benefits are concentrated in a particular region or state but whose costs are blindly spread among all taxpayers.

Earmarks are designed to circumvent the Executive Branch competitive allocation process so that public scrutiny is minimized. With the earmark, Congress gives itself the ability to direct a specified amount of money to be spent on a particular project without the Members of the Congress having to identify themselves or the project.

It is probably safe to say that many, if not all, congressional seats in both parties are successfully re-elected on the basis of monies allocated to pet state projects for constituents that are funded through this less than transparent earmark process.

The impact of earmark provisions

There are reported to be 9,000 earmarks in the new Stimulus Package just passed by Congress. [One wonders, since no one in Congress is said to have even read the package before voting on it.] These are allocations that should have gone through the normal appropriations process but now they don’t have to. They now avoid scrutiny and for all intensive purposes we taxpayers don’t have a clue as to where the earmarked funds are actually going. Nor do taxpayers have a clue about any inherent philosophical changes that some of these earmarked funds will bring to the institutions that serve us.

For example, do we taxpayers really want a 33 percent increase in the tax rates on dividends and capital gains? Or a 25 percent increase in the corporate income tax? What about a 7 percent payroll tax to pay for a new national healthcare that is now trust upon us without any input from us whatsoever? Are you happy with an increase in the death tax? Do we really want to expand the powers of unions? All these things and more are now public policy for Congress to do with as it pleases whether we like it or not.

It points to the absurdity of the whole earmarks process. This is a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ — except where earmarks are concerned.

I don’t know about you but this does not sound like transparency to me.

The political system promotes and encourages the earmark process because of the power-mongering that underlies it. What you and I call ‘pork’ is just politics as usual in Congress. Indeed, it has been standard practice for decades as a way for politicians to reward those who vote for them.

Most Americans, however, want to reduce waste, fraud, abuse and/or mismanagement in the federal government, we’ve had enough of it. But this will not happen so long as earmarks are the norm and until Americans get the message that earmarks seriously erode an otherwise healthy political process.

What this says about our legislators

In an ideal world Congress would police itself. It wouldn’t require the fists of millions of irate taxpayers banging at its doors to initiate an immediate end to earmark provisions. It would see the obvious lack of transparency and do the right thing to remedy it.

It would also stop the partisan fanfare because it also is not in the best interests of Americans. The fact that we have two houses of Congress doesn’t give legislators the right to filibuster opponents’ bills into the ground. Attempts to infinitely extend debate on a bill in order to completely prevent a vote from taking place on it are absurd and thoughtful Americans do not condone it.

The word ‘filibuster’ is derived from the Spanish ‘filibustero’ meaning ‘pirate.’ The filibuster, therefore, is a tactic for pirating or hijacking debate.

While most attempts at stalling legislation are usually just for show and last a relatively short period of time, it points again to the gaming nature of both the filibuster and general congressional behavior. We expect kids to squabble, but our leaders?

The fact that there is so much venom evidenced along party lines in Congress,
we have to assume that the collective bodies of Congress are far more immature than we would otherwise expect them to be. This immaturity is reflected in the venom, as well as in all forms of deviant congressional behavior like earmarking, like the obvious failure of Congress to reform itself. These (and more) are immature behaviors at best and they speak to the need for Americans to clean house and put more competent, mature leaders in place.

Ah, but Americans don’t pay much attention to Congress and that’s how politicians prefer it anyway. Most people on the street couldn’t pick Nancy Pelosi out of a lineup, that’s how uninformed the American electorate is.

Democracy today seems to go where the votes are, not necessarily where the need resides. We see that in the convoluted way the Electoral College is structured, in the way the GOP interacts with the Democratic machine, and visa versa, even in the way mainstream media reports on the political news of the day. We also see it in the obvious exclusion of a third party from the political process.

These things all smack of self-interest, and there is nothing more indicative of immaturity than that.

The fact is, an ignorant public is easily inflammed and the political elites capitalize on that. The idea is to let the uninformed duke it out while the elite make weighty decisions behind closed doors. Issues in the United States today are in large measure controlled by demagogues and opportunists whose own best interests are in focus, not ours.

Not that Congress has a controlling hold on demagogues; they exist at all levels of our federal and state governments, and they sit on what appears to be a vast majority of stockholder boards as well.

Regulatory Shenanigans

The problem with power is that it begets more power. Power-mongering is a symptom of a dysfunctional process. FACT: Members of Congress come to the job with a career mindset. The longer a member of Congress stays put, the more entrenched their power base becomes. So of course no one wants term limits, or age limits.

What is weighty, though, is the fact that citizen ignorance of how Congress works is leading us towards greater and greater government involvement and intervention in our lives.

Are Americans so needy for parental support? Do we really think that ‘big brother’ is all-knowing and so much more capable of governing us than we are in governing ourselves? Our Founding Fathers didn’t think so. They fought hard for our individual liberties, and for good reason.

I’d like to think that the American public is more differentiated than that but the evidence is not there. Between the banking and Wall Street fiascoes and consumer naivitee in spending beyond their means, and an inattentive body of legislators on both sides of the aisle, we are a sorry lot, indeed.

“I can’t GET no-O . . . sa tis FACK shun” by Mick Jagger comes to mind as I read these thoughts from Douglas Smith, Co-ordinator of C-Change and the politics of Direct Democracy: “There’s a very simple way to decide whether direct democracy is a good idea. Go outside. Walk around. Look at people going about their business. Do they look evil to you? Do they excite your fear and loathing? Of course not. They are ordinary and decent, just like you. Then come back in and switch on your TV. Watch the professional politicians performing in [Congress]. Which lot do you trust more?”

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