February 02, 2010

The Comatose Congress

Frank Rich mentions Alan Brinkley briefly en passant in Rich's Sunday column to the effect that Brinkley has written that Congress is now “entering its fourth decade” of failing to deal with any pressing national problem. A while back, I read Brinkley's The Unfinished Nation, and that is certainly one of the themes of this “liberal” history professor at Columbia. (I think it's kind of telling that we categorize historians according to political ideology, as if admitting the truth of the old bromide that history is simply the polemics of the victor.) The fiasco of “health care reform” over the last year can be added to Congress's Marx Brothers approach to national priorities. Brinkley dates things from the beginning of the Reagan Administration (I guess that's why he's “liberal”), but I'm trying to remember anything which happened in the 1970's which might be characterized as a Congressional breakthrough.

I think we need to go back to the Great Society, and the institution of Medicare to find anything definite which was passed by Congress specifically to assist the American populace. That can be added to Social Security, a Depression-era program, and you've got the main components of the “Entitlements.” The 60's also saw the triumph of Civil Rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated onerous obstructions of the exercise of the franchise by African-Americans (there's a nice museum in Selma, Alabama, devoted to this landmark breakthrough, worth seeing, just over the river past the “Bloody Sunday” bridge).

I think Brinkley's on to something, which brings up a profound question: what the hell has Congress been doing for the last forty-five years? Really, nothing much at all, which is why I guess I never expected much from this latest effort. If we wanted to generalize broadly (and what else is a blog for?), I guess one could say the goal has been, certainly since the Reagan years, to minimize the role of the federal government except in its one dominant sphere of influence, the maintenance of a big military apparatus and the prosecution of wars of dubious utility. Beginning with the amateurization of air traffic control (what a great idea, Gipper!), government has mainly been about getting out of the way. Out of the way of regulating banks or financial markets, out of taxing the populace (except on a regressive basis, with marginal rates declining), out of protecting American jobs by facilitating the transfer of jobs overseas with the tax code and with numerous free trade agreements designed to encourage offshoring and importation. The relentlessness of Congress's anti-American bias (Big Business excepted, which can leverage the globalization paradigm to its great benefit), has resulted in the clear hollowing-out of America's middle class, the concentration of wealth at the top to an extreme degree, the destruction of the tax basis (aided and abetted in particular by W's mindless tax cuts), soaring deficits, an epidemic of foreclosures, and looming national bankruptcy.

Quite a resumé. Somewhere in there Congressional politics became about one thing and one thing only, the pandering to the public on “social issues,” and, of course, the dire state of our national security. I mean, we're just never going to be safe enough, are we? Since Congress's main donors (Big Business and their brigades of lobbyists) don't really care about any of these issues other than the military-industrial complex, the financial, pharmaceutical, insurance and banking sectors are perfectly content with whatever arrangements Congress works out on the Yahoo Agenda. Sure, gay marriage, no gay marriage, abortion, no abortion: whatever, dudes. Just don't regulate, don't tax, and keep fighting all these pointless wars, because that's how we can tap into the tax revenue on a sustained basis (when you're not bailing us out).

Am I counseling despair? Well, yeah. What do you think? Congress has been asleep for forty-five years, longer than Rip Van Winkle. The tax receipts are down to $2 trillion, against a budget that will surely come in at $4 trillion, as soon as it is Christmas-Treed. The Federal Reserve is playing shell games to create the appearance of money where none exists. Our foreign creditors are looking elsewhere for places to invest. And we still can't cut a dime from military spending; on the contrary, it keeps going up.

Comes a time, you see, when all this neglect begins to exact a terrible price. Not necessarily in a “linear way,” either. As Mike said in The Sun Also Rises, answering a question about how he went bankrupt: “Gradually, and then all at once.”

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