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Tuesday, 23 February 2010 05:32

Dr. J.’s BF Commentary No. 134: Why Washington "Doesn't Work"

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BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY
By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH              

This week's cover of Time magazine screams "Washington is Frozen."  The New York Times News of the Week in Review for February 21, 2010 tells us that "Washington doesn’t work."  Evan Bayh of "Bayh, Bayh-Partisanship" tells us that he is leaving at the end of his term because there is just "too much partisanship in Washington" that leads to "nothing getting done" and is the fault of "ideologues on both sides.”  Nevertheless, on that score Bayh tends to finger (or is it give the finger to) the "far left" in preference to any sort of GOPer.  (Would that there were a "far left" in Washington, but that's another matter.)  So it's just all of that partisanship that's the matter.  Why people aren't even civil to each other anymore.  And again, that's the fault on both sides.

Well, there are two points (at least) that one can make here.  First, it ain't both sides that are primarily responsible for the partisanship, and there is indeed plenty of it.  Washington doesn’t “work” because the GOP doesn’t want it to and is doing everything in its power to make sure that it doesn’t.  “Washington working,” in the sense of major national problems like the failing health care delivery system, the crumbling infrastructure, and the rapidly declining education system being productively dealt with, significantly reduces the GOP’s political chances.  After all, they have been, and are being so at ever-increasing volume, the party that is against “big government,” even though the big problems we face precisely require big government if they are to be dealt with.  Every time that “big government” can do something positive reduces their chances of getting back into power so that they can, in the delightful Grover Norquist’s terms, “shrink it to the size of a bathtub and then drown it in the tub.”

It is in fact the GOP that has been on the attack against both the Democrats and any and all parts of the Federal government other than the powers of political repression and the military/industrial complex since they began making their Federal governmental comeback with the Gingrich takeover in 1994.  From the outset, the Gingrich House was attacking everything that Clinton stood for (like health care reform) with a vengeance, unless it was something that was GOP policy, like killing welfare.  They went after him on the Bosnia intervention and they went after him on the sex-outside-of-marriage-with-a-consenting-adult matter too.  Some bipartisanship.  And it has continued on apace. 

For example, during the first six years of the Bush Presidency when the GOP controlled the House, Denny Hastert never consulted with the Democratic minority on any legislation.  He brought legislation up to the floor only when he had secured all the votes he needed for passage from the GOP majority, even if that meant violating the House's time-rules so that the Exterminator (Tom DeLay) could twist their arms (or worse).  And such "Bayh-partisanship" has continued with a vengeance during the first year of the Obama Administration.

Having the titular leader of the GOP, Rush Limbaugh, announce before the inauguration, that "I hope he fails," gave every possible signal to the GOP troops that they had better not do anything other than to work to grant that wish.  Having Mitch McConnell announce, before the election, that he would engage the filibuster rule on any proposed legislation he didn't like, wasn't exactly an indication of bipartisanship.  Having Jim (the income tax is unconstitutional, and who cares about the 16th amendment; after all, it’s only an amendment) DeMint make his famous statement about making health care reform into Obama's Waterloo wasn't either. 

While all of this is going on, the DLC-lead Democrats always give away the store before opening time.  At the beginning of the Bush Administration when he was proposing the massive tax cuts for the wealthy that all responsible parties were predicting would lead to massive deficits (and that was before the invasion of Iraq), did the Democrats, who had just come out of the Clinton Administration showing a surplus, say "no, nothing," and start to bargain from there?  No, they started with half a loaf and in the end got nothing anyway.  On health care, did Obama and the Congressional Democrats start with single payer and then bargain it away for, let's say, a public option?  No they began with the public option and then bargained it away for nothing. So if the problem is simply "partisanship" of the kind that prevents anything from getting done, it's not partisanship on both sides that's responsible.  It's partisanship on one side that's responsible.

But in the real world of Washington, as much as the media, the GOP itself, and the GOP-lites like Bayh would like the American people to think that the trouble is partisanship or worse -- "Washington just can't work," "our liberty is at stake," "sovereignty must return to the states" (most of which wouldn't want it even if that were a real solution; they are already "under water" financially worse than any home owner) -- that is not the current cause of the "gridlock."  It is simply that the US has become the largest undemocratic so-called democracy in the world. 

Behold, we not only have an upper house for our legislature that has real power when there is no other such body in the world.  Further, it is an upper house that is entirely undemocratic in its make-up, with two Senators per state, regardless of population.  Not only do we have such an upper house with such a composition but we have it as a legacy of slavery and a British parliament that at the time had a totally un-elected upper house, with power.  (Of course the British House of Lords lost any real power just about 100 years ago, but that is another matter.)  And finally, we not only have such an upper house, but it is one where the minority can prevent the majority from getting "anything done" by simply saying, not even doing, "filibuster."

Just imagine for the moment that there were no filibuster rule.  Would the media and the GOP and their fellow-travelling Tea Partyers and their lap-dog media be talking about "gridlock?"  They might not like what Obama would have accomplished in his first year (well let's say theoretically might have accomplished in his first year because given the DLC control of the Administration one cannot be sure) but the list could have included: some kind of meaningful health care reform with a public option; a real "stimulus package" spending about twice as much with few if any non-productive tax cuts; an immediate increase in the tax rates for the rich; a real start on dealing with global warming and climate change; hundreds of bright and eager, technically competent leaders of all Executive Branch departments; meaningful steps to save Social Security could have been taken, starting with increasing the upper income limit for the payroll tax deduction; some kind of level playing field could have been restored for the trade unions; at least some thought might have been applied to figure out how to prevent all the rest of the U.S. manufacturing jobs from being exported overseas by greedy corporations; meaningful regulation of the banking and financial industries could already have been in place; and so on and so forth.

Yes, "Washington is frozen."  But it is not because of bi-partisan "partisanship."  It is not because the government is "too big" (big problems require big solutions).  It is because the GOP a) is totally, categorically opposed to any of the above because of whom they really represent and b) wants to do everything it can to prevent any success from emanating from the Obama Administration.  Unfortunately, it's the DLC-lead Democrats (starting with Rahm Emmanuel) who cannot (actually don't want to) see this.  Given the filibuster rule, Washington will not be unfrozen anytime soon.  And so we might actually see a McConnell/Boehner-lead Congress next January.  And actually they might not like that.  After all, with their present authority to stop anything from getting done, they would then have the responsibility to get something done.  And any of the somethings that would do very many people any good are anathema to their party and what it really stands for.  But that's another story, actually one I've already told.

Indeed the political weather in Washington is very cold.  Given a GOP that knows exactly what kinds of policies and politics serve its best interests and a Democratic Party that doesn’t, it will likely remain that way for quite some time.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also Managing Editor and a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; a Contributor to The Planetary Movement; and a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC.

BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY