Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Style Over Substance?

Legislators are getting ready to begin the 112th Congress in Washington, and they say that they will do so with a reading of the Constitution on the House floor. While this is certainly a novel notion (having never before been done), let's hope that all of them have previously managed at least a glance or two at this document. They are, after all, about to swear an oath to invoking it and we wouldn't want them to speak to something that they haven't read (yet again)

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God." 

Republican members of the House then expect to quickly move on to a vote repealing 'The Affordable Care Act", better known as health care reform. The vote is largely symbolic, since it is doubtful that even if passed by the House it will receive anything less than a chilly reception in the Senate; but it would fulfill the campaign promises made by many of the Representatives recently elected. Should it reach the required number of supporters in the upper house unexpectedly (you know, like those unexpected unemployment numbers), it would undoubtedly die by the veto pen of President Obama. 

Speaking of the Senate, the plan there appears to be little difference in intent but some in regards to subject, with Democratic Senator Tom Udall expected to propose changes in the Senate rules in an attempt to derail the filibuster process that both parties have found pesky from time to time (especially when they're in the majority and it gets in the way of their side's legislative agenda). Again, no one actually expects the vote to get anywhere, but it should prove to be a sop to a Democratic voter base who are disgruntled about losing control of the House.

What do both of these acts have in common? They are little more than style!

Like many of the things that Congress does, there is little of substance involved with these actions. No change in expanding federal government is made. No reduction in the massive deficit occurs. No jobs are saved or created (not even government jobs). The national legislature often seeks style over substance, and usually for the basest of political reasons. Votes are taken on issues, knowing that they will fail for no other reason than to provide political cover for those voting for them. Similarly votes are taken, knowing that the margin of victory is well in hand in order to allow certain members to vote against them for the same purpose. (In both cases, usually those who are vulnerable in their district.) 

If you really want to take advantage of such cover however, you can simply be a member who either proposes legislation that has no chance of even reaching a vote on the House floor or simply give a speech to an empty room that will become part of the Congressional Record in order to provide you with great sound bites for your next re-election campaign. And then we will come to the numbers games ... The Republicans are vowing to cut $100 billion in domestic spending for the coming year; but by the time they can get around to it, continuing resolutions will have allowed 2010 spending levels to proceed for the first half of the 2011 fiscal year, making this all but impossible. Victory will be claimed however, if the spending for the last six months is juggled to the promised rate. 

Then of course, we will see these purported budget cuts approved by the House can be similarly affirmed by the Senate, where the priorities (and the party in power) are different. If the final compromise worked out between the two Houses becomes less of a cut, Republicans will nevertheless say that they kept their promise even while the business as usual of government spending continues. 

There will also I'm sure, be discussions to end earmarks, reduce the deficit, and cut waste. Most of these have been topics of every Congress in the last century, and usually occur as each new Congress begins sessions. Inevitably however they bog down when reduced to specific proposals of programs to be cut, get tied up in committees, or simply seem fade away due to more pressing legislative issues. 

This form of political prestidigitation is a talent that the legislature can usually count on, since voters long ago proved themselves to have the attention span of a five year-old. Even when the electorate is serious about taking on such subjects, most are relieved to discover that something prevents their ox from being gored in the process. 

Don't get me wrong here. I am happy that the Tea Party Movement has garnered some much needed attention for the Constitution. I am likewise pleased to see that the incoming Congress appears to be willing to deal with its own profligate spending habits (at least in theory). In my self-designated role of Curmudgeon however, I see little to make me believe that the political rhetoric on substantive change is little more than something that the EPA has recently assumed the authority to regulate in power plants (for those not keeping up, CO2)

I hold some small hope that I am wrong in setting low expectations for the national legislature as it begins its new sessions, but my regular play of the Lottery should convince anyone that I believe in long odds. In the end, I find little in the history of this legislative body to convince me that anything that occurs over the next two years will be little more than yet another example of Style over Substance.

No comments: