The Tea Partyers are coming! Quick, pass some laws.

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Although the Senate is normally an institution with its head in the 18th century - and that may be unfair, I know, to the 18th century - it actually acknowledged modernity on Tuesday, if only for a moment. By passing a bill that substantially strengthens food safety regulations, it recognized that the food we eat is produced both industrially and globally. Whether its newfound grasp on reality extends to other key pending legislation, the Dream Act and repealing "don't ask, don't tell," we'll know soon enough.

On Tuesday, though, the world's greatest deliberative body actually concerned itself with facts - such as, almost 20 percent of food consumed in the United States, including three-fourths of our fish, is imported from other countries. But the Food and Drug Administration has lacked authority and staff to inspect more than one pound in 1 million of food imports. The just-passed bill will give the FDA authority to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad and to increase its inspection of food processing plants in other countries. It also mandates increased inspections of domestic food processors and allows the FDA to recall unsafe food directly from stores.

The legislation now bounces back to the House, which is likely to pass it unamended so it can reach the president's desk before the next, more Republican, Congress can weaken or defeat it. That the Senate passed the bill with 15 Republicans joining every Democrat in voting "aye" is being hailed as a rare triumph of bipartisanship, but that doesn't mean the legislation could have passed in the next Congress, too. The 15 Republicans who voted yes were outnumbered by 25 Republicans voting no, an eat-at-your-own-risk caucus that included GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell and whip Jon Kyl. Any thought that such a bill could pass the House once John Boehner becomes speaker is sheer fancy - Glenn Beck, after all, sees the bill as a plot to raise food prices, and besides, the FDA was created by that sinister progressive Theodore Roosevelt.

Alas, should the legislation become law, Boehner's House could still block enforcement of its provisions. A Tea Party-infused Congress might not want to fund the expanded FDA safety checks. I can't quite figure out the case for stopping dangerous people at the border while waving in dangerous food uninspected, but I'm confident that Beck and his brethren will rise to the occasion and explain it.

A month remains, though, before the zealots of a make-believe past arrive to craft our future, which means that the Senate still has time to pass laws for the 21st century. Two such bills that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged to bring up are the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and the Dream Act, which would enable undocumented immigrants who came here as children to obtain citizenship if they graduated college or served honorably in the armed forces. The bills, both of which have passed the House, need the support of a few Republican senators to reach the magic number, 60, to ensure debate would be ended on the legislation. In pre-Tea Party times, there actually were a few such senators who backed one bill or the other. (Richard Lugar and Susan Collins have at various times supported both.) What happens now is anybody's guess.

The Tea Party's battle cry - Take Our Country Back - expresses a clear desire to return to a time when America was whiter and gays and lesbians were chained in the closet. These bills are an affront to that America, and if defeating the Dream Act can't by itself make America whiter, it can at least keep some Latinos and Asians from getting the vote.

Against such concerns, supporters of the legislation can argue that these bills make the country stronger by enabling more talented and motivated people to serve in our national defense, or to become well-educated and credentialed workers. The bills recognize that America has a long tradition of rewarding military service and the Horatio Alger spirit. The Dream Act also acknowledges that having a permanent non-citizen caste mocks not only our claim to being the land of opportunity but also our claim to equality under the law.

So we've arrived at a moment of truth for the Senate, particularly its Republican members: Having acknowledged that our food now comes from everywhere and merits some inspection, can they also acknowledge that Americans now come from everywhere - and have a variety of sexual orientations - and that we should not penalize our nation for their provenance or proclivities? Can we conform our laws to 21st-century realities - before the apostles of our dankest bigotries arrive to cart us into the past?

© 2010 The Washington Post Company