Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The great humorist Will Rogers observed about Congress that when it wished to play a joke, it passed a law and, vice versa, many of its laws became jokes. Rogers would not have been disappointed in the recent spectacle over Terry Schiavo and Congress’ rush to pass legislation to keep her alive.

About Mrs. Schiavo, hers is a tragedy that no law can fix. For a decade-and-a-half, her case is one torn between parents who desperately wish to sustain her for as long as possible and a husband who wants to do what he believes is the right and merciful thing. So, is this the way our Congress should be spending its precious time above and beyond holding hearings on the use of steroids by professional baseball players?

By contrast, how are other legislative bodies conducting business? In Britain earlier this month, the House of Commons debated an anti-terror bill. Prime Minister Tony Blair believed that in an age of terror, national security warranted intervention into civil liberties. The unelected House of Lords and Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and even Labor members of parliament violently dissented. Even with a 160-seat majority, Mr. Blair had to summon home members of his party who were abroad to carry the vote by a slim majority. Irrespective of the merits of the bill, this was a very serious issue that required very serious response.

In Baghdad, the newly elected National Assembly continues to struggle with selecting a president, deputy presidents, a prime minister and a cabinet. There is no more important issue for Iraq, and its elected officials are laboring under hugely difficult circumstances to reach agreement on that country’s political future. It may, as Rogers noted, turn out to be a joke. However, this debate and deliberation are deadly serious and important.

In China, meanwhile, the People’s National Assembly passed an anti-secession law against Taiwan independence. Of course, few believe that this body is duly or democratically elected. However, there is no doubt that in the minds of the Chinese that the Taiwan matter is of greatest national importance. Indeed, China’s hypersensitivity toward Taiwan has become radioactive in part because China fears Taiwan is using American preoccupation with the war in Iraq as cover to strengthen its pursuit of independence. A rubber-stamp law, no doubt it is — but one reflecting an issue of gravest vital interest to China and one that Abraham Lincoln might have appreciated better than most Americans.

Congress chose to make the Schiavo case an urgent priority, debating over a weekend to pass the act and then having the president cut short his stay at the Crawford ranch to sign the legislation in the early morning hours. Are there no more pressing issues such as wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and against terror that deserve at least as much congressional oversight and interest as poor Mrs. Schiavo? What about the fiscal and financial mess over exploding debts and deficits; health care that is close to crisis; failure to carry through on the needed national security reforms in continuing the reorganization of the Homeland Security Department and the intelligence community and skyrocketing oil prices?

Troubling answers to these questions come to mind. Both political parties may have reached the view that regards “values” rather than “interests” as the basis for governing and for defining political aims and goals. In earlier incarnations, this was often called the debate between “idealists” and “realists,” and Wilsonians and Washingtonians. However, national interests carried the day. Now, value and respect for life, the corollary of advancing freedom and liberty as God’s gifts, could become fixtures in a new American crusade that clearly goes far beyond the Schiavo case to Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose.

Cynically, the political reality may well be that values are the keys to the electoral kingdom despite current polls that show about 70 percent of Americans disagree with Congress’ legislative action on this one case. The federal court ruling on the case swiftly rejected the resolution. The judge believes in separation of powers, and the law and was not cowed by Congress.

What about Americans and their reactions to what clearly was legislative overreach? What has this done to perceptions abroad about the maturity and wisdom of the United States acting as the sole remaining superpower? A serious nation with serious issues at hand must act with corresponding good sense, wisdom and intelligence. Otherwise, Rogers will be right and we will be left with bad jokes in place of good laws.

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