By Dana Milbank
Sunday, February 20, 2011; A19
To say that our lawmakers are carping at trifles gives them too much credit. In fact, they are carping at carp.
"Asian carp [are] one of the world's most rampant invasive species," Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, proclaimed on the House floor, 35 hours into the debate over budget cuts. "Weighing up to 100 pounds, spanning over six feet and eating half their body weight daily, Asian carp have the ability to decimate fish populations indigenous to the Great Lakes."
That certainly stinks for Great Lakes fish and Great Lakes fishermen. But if you think the federal budget will be balanced on the backs of the Asian carp, you're all wet. And that's what makes Camp's carping emblematic of the current debate over budget cuts. The whole exercise is less about improving the nation's fiscal balance than about parochial concerns and political volleys.
Camp continued: "These giant bottom feeders" - he was talking about the fish, not his colleagues - "would destroy the region's $7.5 billion fishing industry." His solution: Have the feds close the locks that separate the Illinois River from Lake Michigan.
Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) rose in opposition. "No one wants carps in the Great Lakes," he said, but "the closure of the locks is uncalled for." The Hoosier asserted that "Michigan had failed to demonstrate that the Asian carp presented an ecological threat to the Great Lakes that was imminent."
Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) provided a bulletin on the enemy's position: "The Asian carp are 42 miles from the city of Chicago." Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) offered a procedural solution to the invasion. Instead of beginning his speech with the customary parliamentary language, "I rise to strike the requisite number of words," he said: "I rise to strike the requisite number of fish."
Camp's amendment went belly-up.
House Speaker John Boehner deserves credit for allowing a freewheeling budget debate, in which some 600 amendments were proposed. But the rare spectacle also revealed how petty this whole budget-cutting exercise is. The nation's debt problem is enormous, but so far President Obama and the lawmakers have tiptoed around the real problems, particularly Medicare.
Instead, they're haggling over the 36 percent of the budget called "discretionary spending," and particularly the 13 percent known as "non-defense discretionary spending." Even in the unlikely event that House Republicans can force Obama and Senate Democrats to go along with their $60 billion of cuts in the current fiscal year, that would barely dent this year's $1.5 trillion deficit, even as it causes chaos and throws hundreds of thousands of people out of work.
As such, the budget debate had less to do with cutting deficits than with making points: de-funding Planned Parenthood (the lawmakers bickered about abortion for three hours Thursday night), dismantling federal education funding, abolishing foreign aid and blocking implementation of health-care reform, financial regulations and environmental rules.
With Medicare and the other drivers of the debt crisis out of consideration, the lawmakers' task amounted to sweating the small stuff.
California Rep. Darrell Issa, the man Republicans have entrusted to investigate the Obama administration, proposed to block funds studying "the impact of integral yoga on hot flashes in menopausal women," the "condom-use skills in adult males" and "whether video games improve mental health for the elderly." Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) sought to prevent "removals of free-roaming wild horses and burros." Others suggested forbidding repairs of the family residence in the White House, keeping the Treasury secretary from getting on airplanes and de-funding the president's teleprompters.
Democrats retaliated with their own frivolity. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota proposed taking the oom-pah out of military bands by restricting spending for the Pentagon's music. She managed to force a floor debate on whether to block the Pentagon from sponsoring NASCAR drivers.
"This amendment is where the rubber meets the road for my Republican Tea Party colleagues who want to cut wasteful spending," she taunted. "We have the Army spending $7 million for a decal on a racing car."
From NASCAR country, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) rose in protest. "This amendment is about politics," he complained.
Surely politics had nothing to do with a successful (and surely unconstitutional) amendment offered by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) to de-fund salaries for various Obama advisers labeled "czars."
"To the czars, I say, 'Nyet!' " declared Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).
"I will leave it to the gentleman to work out his Lenin fantasy," replied Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
Now if only they could work out their fantasy that fighting about czars, condoms and carp will fix the budget crisis.