Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 May 2009

Our Still Dysfunctional Congress

For a Memorial Day coda, click here. For an Haiku on Dick Cheney, click here.

Like Michelle Obama, I became deeply proud of my country, for the first time in a long time, when her husband was nominated for and became president. Every day, I marvel at the positive changes his wisdom, vision, perspective and good judgment promise and already have made.

The new auto-mileage standards are classic Obama. By getting the industry to buy into them, he imposed energy discipline by agreement. He bypassed Congress and avoided what could have been a messy legislative battle and a decade of dilatory lawsuits. As the New York Times editorialized, the result was an “important down payment” on a much-needed rational energy policy.

Like higher gas prices, a carbon tax, or “cap and trade,” the new standards also got the economics right. They tell the industry what to do but not how to do it, and they don’t pick winners. Car makers can meet the new standards with electric vehicles, hybrids, other new technology, or more Rube Goldberg machines in smaller, lighter cars.

So far, so good.

But Congress is another story. The 2008 election did not cure every ill. Our poor legislative leadership at this time of multiple national crises continues to drag us down.

In the past we’ve had some great legislative leaders. There were Senators like William Fulbright (D., Ark.), whose name dignifies one of our most important (and least expensive) programs for international peace and understanding. Nearly alone, he dissented to Joe McCarthy’s red baiting and our disastrous attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, for which we are still paying a staggering price half a century later.

There were Sam Erwin (D., N.C.), and Howard Baker, Jr. (R., Tenn.). These men of different parties cooperated in bringing down our first rogue president and restoring constitutional order after Watergate. There was Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D., Tex.), a master legislative strategist who, as president, spent all his political capital on civil rights, knowing that doing so would doom his party for two generations. Obama’s presidency is in part his legacy. There were Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D., Mont.) and Daniel Moynihan (D., N.Y., once the Senate’s economic conscience). And there is Teddy Kennedy (D., Mass.), who is now fighting for his life.

Next to these giants, our current legislative leaders are midgets. Speaker Pelosi (D., Ca.) let herself be trapped in a “she said, he said” controversy with the CIA. She didn’t even drive home the point that we’ve finally outlawed torture and intend to keep it that way. If she’s had a new idea or a successful major legislative initiative during her tenure as Speaker, I’m not aware of it. She seems to spend her days in perpetual defensiveness and self-justification.

As for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), he seems to think and talk like Dubya slimmed down and turned left. To say that his intelligence, articulation, and vision fail to excite would be an understatement of Obamanian proportions. He must have had something to get elected majority leader, but from out here in voterland it’s hard to see what that something was. Maybe Nevadans know.

Next time senators elect a leader, they might want to consider that their body is not an exclusive boys’ club, but the leading deliberative forum for the nation and the world. How about someone who is capable of intelligent debate?

Not only is Reid marginally articulate. He’s our NIMBY-in-chief. First he helps torpedo a decade-long project to advance nuclear power by disposing safely of nuclear waste, because the repository would be in his state. Then he adamantly refuses to provide money for closing Guantánamo, saying he’ll never let terrorists serve their prison terms in the United States. If we continue to follow his enlightened leadership, we can force all industry and other nasty things offshore and, like his home state, subsist on legalized gambling and prostitution.

Then there’s Evan Bayh (D., Ind.), son of the great Hoosier senator Birch Bayh (D., Ind.). The son is a true energy troglodyte. In the nation with the greatest record of technological innovation in human history, his response to climate change is to burn more coal and point the finger at China.

Where are the folks who get the seriousness and urgency of climate change and our abject energy dependence? Where are the ones who understand and can articulate how a small group of profit seekers have crippled our health care system for half a century, rendering the world’s richest country inefficient and uncaring and its basic industry uncompetitive and dying? Where are the great orators who can frame the defects of our day in ways that average folk can understand? Where, for that matter, is Al Gore?

Finally, there’s the opposition. Take them: Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), John Boehner (R., Ohio), Richard Shelby (R., Ala.), and John Ensign (R., Nev.). Please. When they are not displaying ignorance of economics and basic pragmatism on a scale that would embarrass any college graduate, they are obsessing about money to the exclusion of all else.

If their homes were collapsing from ground subsidence, would they fail to borrow to fix the foundations? If their roofs blew off in the middle of a frigid winter, would they balk at taking loans to repair them? I hope not. Then why do they incessantly beat the drum against reasonable borrowing to solve our nation’s toughest problems, which we’ve neglected for decades and which threaten to demote us to has-beens? Is it just to make partisan points in the absence of any more credible divisive ideas?

Where is the vision, the sense of perspective? Where is the leadership?

Our Executive has good leadership again, but Congress’ few good members appear to be keeping a low profile. In the House, there’s redoubtable Henry Waxman (D., Cal.), the green-eyeshade guy, who has the doggedness to root out fraud, waste and abuse and try to correct it. In the Senate, there’s Diane Feinstein (D., Cal.), with a razor-sharp legal mind and the graciousness of a queen. There’s Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), who low-key style conceals a mighty intellect, and Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), a smart and good man who appears to have lapsed into demagoguery and partisan bickering during Dubya’s reign.

The opposition has some good people, too. I’ve praised Dick Lugar (R., Ind.) on this blog for his courageous, early stances on Iraq and climate change. Although John McCain (R., Ariz.) knows nothing about economics and would have made a terrible president, he’s a good man who spoke out on torture and has tried to reach across the aisle on important issues like energy. There are the two Republican ladies from Maine (Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins) who lent their moderation and good sense to passing the President’s restoration budget against fierce partisan opposition. Without their help, our nation might sink further in decline.

And there’s Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), maybe my favorite Republican. I disagree with him often. But he is insightful, courteous, rarely demagogic, and usually more focused on the nation’s needs than on the parochial concerns of his district or on scoring political points. He joined McCain to oppose torture forcefully, and he has never failed to praise the President for right action to advance our cause in war. He seems the last remaining adherent to the vanishing tradition of Southern statesmanship that put graciousness and country first.

Arlen Specter (once R., now D., Pa.) is more troubling. He’s a cancer survivor. I’d like to think that his near-death experience made him see what is really important in life. I’d like to think that’s why he switched parties, to join the push for changes we must make to get back on our feet. But his vacillation on vital issues makes me suspect that personal power and aggrandizement weigh equally in his mind. It would be heartbreaking, at this critical time in history, if our best legislators let ego prevail over national need.

There are not too many good members like these, but there never are. If they spoke out and were heard, they might have sufficient force to change the tenor of debate and promote bipartisan cooperation in arresting national decline.

But there is little indication of that much-desired result. Instead, Congress seems to personify that brilliant line from Yeats’ classic World War I-era poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Maybe the media are at fault. Maybe Reid, Pelosi, McConnell and Boehner—despite their self-evident lack of talent—get all the coverage because of their titles. Maybe the likes of Shelby and Ensign get heard because their mindless partisanship makes good entertainment.

But maybe the few good members with vision are also to blame. Maybe—in the absence of the kind of visionary legislative leadership this time of crisis demands—they should make themselves heard more. Maybe they should put the interests of their country above party and home district.

We are even not close to solving our four critical problems, and the nation needs every skilled hand to pull its wagon out of the ditch. More guns in national parks just don’t cut it, even when attached to slapdash credit-card reform.

Memorial Day Coda

In a long and busy Memorial Day weekend, three points kept pressing on my mind. All three illustrate the enormous gap in vision, responsibility, decency and honesty between our President and Congress.

The first was the President’s speech on terrorism and American values last Thursday. It was an insightful, masterful speech, rich in understanding and history. I won’t demean it by attempting to summarize it in a few paragraphs. Every American should read it or watch it.

The speech’s main point was simple. There is no conflict between keeping Americans safe and preserving American values because our values are what keep us safe.

Our American values of fairness, due process, and justice have helped us win our most important and most recent successful wars. Before World War II, those values brought the best foreign-born physicists to our shores—men like Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, Emilio Segre, and Enrico Fermi. They and other brilliant scientists came here from their homelands to think and work in freedom. They stayed to give us an unbeatable lead in atomic energy and nuclear weapons, which persists to this day.

At the end of World War II, German scientists like Werner Von Braun defected to us, rather than the Soviets, because they wanted to live in a free society under the rule of law. Although the Soviets beat us to orbit, the ex-German scientists’ work helped us beat the Soviets to the Moon, close the so-called “Missile Gap,” and ultimately win the Cold War.

In Gulf I, tens of thousands of Iraqis willingly and eagerly surrendered to U.S. troops, hoping and believing that we would treat them better as prisoners of war than Saddam would treat them as citizens of Iraq. Their surrender made that war the most rapidly and spectacularly successful in U.S. history. Colin Powell, not Dick Cheney, worked that miracle.

In all three instances, our values made us strong, not weak. They induced people who had a choice to come to our side through immigration or surrender. Those people came for justice and the rule of law, not torture.

My second point highlights the abysmal quality of leadership in Congress. Immediately after the President’s speech, the Senate and House Minority leaders (McConnell and Boehner, respectively), rose in rebuttal. Both men accused the President of having no plan to close Guantánamo.

Apparently neither bothered to read or watch the speech he was supposed to be reviewing.

In fact, the President had offered a detailed five-point plan for closing Guantánamo. Point 1 involved carefully evaluating each case and trying those detainees in federal criminal court who can be safely tried there (as a number of terrorists already have been tried). Point 2 was to try detainees who have violated the laws of war (including those whose public trial might reveal important secrets) in secret military commissions, like those set up by Dubya, but better conforming to our Constitution. Point 3 was to release the few detainees that our own courts already had ordered released. Point 4 involved transferring to other countries those detainees whom other countries will accept and who can safely be transferred there. The fifth and final point addressed those detainees whom military and intelligence experts find too dangerous to release, but whom neither a civilian nor military tribunal could convict, for lack of good evidence. The President proposed to hold them in indefinite detention, subject to periodic, secret executive and judicial review.

No doubt the President’s plan is not perfect. McConnell and Boehner might have criticized one or more of its five points. But neither did. Instead, both lied to the American public and the world, saying the President had no plan at all. They implied that he—the most deliberate and highly trained legal mind in the White House in U.S. history—was shooting from the hip. That was a bald, lazy, stupid, irresponsible lie, on an important issue of national security.

Never have so few thought so little and resorted so quickly to such inept demagoguery. You couldn’t write up such a farce as fiction; no one would believe it, not of the minority leaders of the world’s greatest democracy in the twenty-first century.

My third point is another bit of low demagoguery. In resisting the President’s plan to close Guantánamo, which was also Dubya’s aim, McConnell and Boehner deplored allowing terrorists to enter the United States, even to be incarcerated. They tried to stir up public fear, implying that the detainees would be living in residential neighborhoods in some sort of “halfway house” for terrorists.

Of course that notion is ridiculous, as the President pointed out in his speech. No one has ever escaped from our most secure prisons. If worst came to worst, we could reopen Alcatraz, which held Al Capone during the height of the Mob’s power.

But McConnell and Boehner didn’t care about sense, facts or history. They sought rude political advantage by scaring the ill-informed, gullible and downright stupid. Unfortunately, they were not alone: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bought into their demagoguery and aped it.

Today we recall and celebrate the courage, dedication and sacrifice of those who gave life and limb to preserve our freedom and our values. Tens of thousands lie in early graves, marked by crosses, stars of David, or Islamic crescents.

If these legions could have a few more moments of life, what would they tell us? Maybe they would say they fought for justice, not torture. They probably wouldn’t think much of so-called “leaders” who distort their commander-in-chief’s words. And they, who died in battle, would give a lusty laugh at the thought of fearing detainees locked in secure prisons. They might be angry at anyone who thought Americans could be so easily cowed.

Haiku on Dick Cheney

    An old man,
    Fighting truth and history.


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