By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Perhaps we should redeploy the democracy experts we have sent to the Middle East and ask them to work on our Congress. The past few days have confirmed that our national government is dysfunctional.
It wasn't just the nasty Friday evening "debate" over Iraq policy in the House, set up by Republican leaders to score political points after Rep. John Murtha's call for immediate withdrawal received so much attention. And it wasn't just Rep. Jean Schmidt, an Ohio Republican, deciding to send a constituent's "message" to Murtha -- a Marine combat veteran with 37 years of active and reserve service -- to the effect that "cowards cut and run, Marines never do."
What happened hours earlier, at 1:45 a.m., symbolized all that is wrong with Washington. After immense pressure from Republican leaders, the House passed $50 billion in budget cuts -- including reductions in Medicaid, food stamps and child support enforcement -- on a 217 to 215 vote. Republicans who pride themselves on being moderate had their arms twisted into backing the bill, partly on the basis of promises that many of the cuts it contained wouldn't survive in House-Senate negotiations.
Not a single Democrat was willing to vote for the budget, because there are far better ways to cut the deficit. Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican who dissented from his party, made the case against the budget as well as anyone. "We should cut the pork," he told the Washington Times, "not the poor."
The current leadership in Congress simply refuses to revisit any of the tax cuts it has passed since President Bush took office. On the contrary, the leaders plan to push through $70 billion in tax cuts after Thanksgiving, including dividend and capital gains reductions that go overwhelmingly to the wealthiest Americans.
Some of the most powerful words on the budget cuts came from one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. Rep. Gene Taylor, whose district was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, couldn't believe that cuts in programs for the poor were being justified as necessary to cover the costs of relief for hurricane victims. Taylor's syntax only underscored the emotion he brought to the floor: "Mr. Speaker, in south Mississippi tonight, the people . . . who are living in two- and three-man igloo tents waiting for Congress to do something, have absolutely got to think this place has lost their minds. The same Congress that voted to give the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans tax breaks every time . . . suddenly after taking care of those who had the most, we have got to hurt the least. . . . Folks, this is insane. . . . This is the cruelest lie of all, that the only way you can help the people who have lost everything is by hurting somebody else."
It is, indeed, insane that a clear majority in the House was unable to work its will and come up with a more reasonable approach. In addition to the 14 House Republicans who voted against the cuts, another dozen who voted for them under pressure expressed grave doubts about the effect of some of the reductions. If our democracy were functional, the House majority that wants a balanced approach to cutting the deficit -- Democrats and middle-of-the-road Republicans -- could hash out the trade-offs between tax cuts and spending cuts. Everything would be on the table.
But the Republican leadership does not want to revisit the tax cuts. It wants to keep control over the budget within the Republican Party, which is dominated by its right wing. Eventually, enough moderate Republicans cave in. The game continues. The system guarantees that moderation, so often praised by academics, editorial writers and columnists, is the one approach that's impossible.
And so it was not surprising that hours after the budget vote, the House blew up over Iraq. If the House leadership had wanted a real debate on Iraq policy, it wouldn't have sprung a synthetic, one-sentence "resolution" crafted to embarrass Democrats at the last minute. It would have permitted amendments and alternatives, and allotted serious time to a serious subject.
Which brings us back to those democracy experts we are sending around the world. Let's bring just a few home and ask them to advise our leaders on how to bring democracy to Congress. If we want to sell reason and moderation to our Iraqi allies, we'd be more persuasive if we could have reasonable debates ourselves about how to fund our government and how to conduct our policy in their country.