I've been around institutions of government most of my professional career, so you may think that, after all these years of my immersion in and exposure to the trappings of Washington, my "expectations" meter would be fairly calibrated and very little would surprise me. After witnessing the latest actions of the Congress, I have once again achieved new heights of amazement.
Mr. and Mrs. America, our sweet land of liberty is in a big mess. Yes, the sour economy stands most prominently in our minds, followed by eternal threats of terrorism and a declining sense of global respect for American exceptionalism. With problems like these, they almost seem to dwarf the other 800-pound gorillas, such as spiraling health-care costs, porous immigration borders and an entitlement system set for total collapse. Yet none of these issues have been "solved" as of late, let alone mitigated to any meaningful extent.
What bothers me most, however, is not so much the problems' intractable nature, but how policy-makers choose to address them. In many instances, they simply do not.
Tough decisions have become an anathema to Congress. Despite new pledges of change, the political stakes are apparently too high to warrant any substantive deliberation over the most complex issues of the day. It's almost as if members of Congress have taken an oath similar to the Hippocratic one sworn by the medical profession, only this one pledges to "first do no hard work." The incrementalist approach to governing envisioned by the Founders has been traded for aimless dawdling at every level. Consensus in the committee rooms is eschewed for fear of a political ad that could be aired come election season. Policy alliances in the cloakroom that temporarily suspend political rivalries are viewed as more traitorous than altruistic. Comity in the name of progress is extinct.
One area where there is near-unanimous agreement, however, is using the federal checkbook to address (or push off) the nation's woes. More than ever, taxpayer dollars have become the lubricant that eases legislative friction. Did a committee chairman get shortchanged on a pet project in the farm bill? No problem, up the ante a few billion. After all, that's a "rounding error" in this town and somebody said this was all on paper.
Take the ongoing financial meltdown as another example of Congress hitting the "easy" button. In the span of four days, Democrats, led by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson then called an audible, scratched the bank bailout option, and decided to go another way.
When asked to explain Treasury's erratic moves, Congress' own appointed watchdog, National Public Radio that Treasury lacked the "statutory restraint" to keep it in line. Translation: Congress didn't fully understand what actions it was taking, but certainly didn't want to assume any of the liability, so it gave free reign to King Henry.
Indeed, the press enables such co-dependent behavior, focusing more on the political drama than the serious ramifications and consequences of each policy maneuver. When was the last time Hardball" with a Pelosi lieutenant who was heralding more "investments" using your tax dollars? He hasn't - and he won't - because that sort of journalism just doesn't sell in an era where consumer tastes, not news content, drive a show's programming. Nor is this epidemic isolated to one party. Republicans are conspirators in this political Ponzi scheme. After all, one party needs the other to ensure neither is labeled as the antagonist.
Congress must re-learn the meaning of priorities. The federal budget has become a laughable document - as worthless as the paper it's printed on. Set priorities on education, farm aid, scientific research and health care, and then stick to them. That means picking winners and losers. In a world with limited resources, something has to give, and some very worthy causes will have to go without.
When it comes to Congress and its own version of the Hippocratic Oath, I'm one patient who'd rather take his chances with the disease than the irresponsible cure lawmakers are offering. The path of least resistance has now become the calling card for this once-august body. At a time when America needs leadership more than ever, Congress shirks its responsibilities not only to act, but to act with the discipline and responsibility to make tough choices. If it doesn't, new "crises" will only pile on top of the ones we're stuck with now. It's time for some hard work in Washington.
The Washington Times appears on Mondays.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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