Obamacare and irrational politics

September 20, 2013

Early last week at the Capitol I talked for a moment with Louie Gohmert, a Republican congressman from Texas, who had just emerged from a briefing on Syria. Administration officials had been trying to sell their argument that Congress should authorize military strikes against the Assad regime. The congressman, however, was skeptical. One thing we need to do, he said, is find out who scrubbed the talking points given to Susan Rice before she went on the Sunday shows to talk about Benghazi last year. We need to know who did that, he said, so that we can be more confident about the intelligence community’s assessment of what happened with chemical weapons in Syria.

I was a little surprised that, with the Syria situation so hot, the congressman remained focused on something that happened a year ago. Perhaps I need to pay more attention to the conservative news media — switch from the Nats game to Fox News once in a while, and so forth. And in general I need to get out more, pound the pavement, work the corridors, buttonhole lawmakers, drop into a think tank here and there, and get up to speed on the latest ideas from the best and the brightest. Here’s my guess though: The latest ideas aren’t going to revolve around the tragedy in Benghazi.

Nor will they built around the assumption that Congress is going to defund Obamacare. Congress isn’t going to do that. Read the Dave Weigel piece in Slate. The defunding effort can’t work, because the Senate won’t agree to it. To think otherwise, said John McCain, “Is not rational.”

But actually, it is rational, in a sense — because it plays to the base. Same with talking about Benghazi. There’s game theory behind these maneuvers. Quixotic behavior has its rewards. There is no longer a “national conversation,” as some people call it. There are partisan conversations, and fringe conversations, and deep-down-the-rabbit-hole conversations. If you are a GOP congressman and know you have to run for re-election, you don’t want to be challenged on your right flank, so you advocate legislation that rationally advances your re-election prospects even if it has zero chance of becoming law. (Ezra & Co. make this point and go a step further, saying that, while it helps a Republican individually, such behavior is killing the party.)

Weigel makes a key point that can easily get lost in the Obamacare issue: If the Congress does eventually pass a Continuing Resolution to keep the government open, the funding will be at sequestration levels. In effect, sequestration has gone from a too-terrible-to-contemplate motivational tool to being the new baseline — the new normal.

How will the American people feel when FBI offices are shut down for a couple of weeks because the agents have all been sent home on unpaid leave? James Comey, the new FBI director, had this to say: “I can’t imagine that if we have charged people with protecting their fellow citizens that it makes sense to send them home and tell them you can’t work for two weeks without pay.”

If agencies are bloated and overfunded, Congress should trim them appropriately. Sequestration is the brain-dead way to reduce government spending. It is a sign of my persistent delusional optimism and mental deterioration that I cling to the belief that brain-dead is a standard of governance that our leaders can potentially surpass.

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | September 17, 2013