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November 17, 1998

Piggy Back Politics

by Woody Justice

Well, the election is over and the coalition government of the Socialists and the Greens has announced its platform. Sweeping measures for the public benefit include restoring gutted welfare programs to mend the safety net for citizens suffering hard times, increasing taxes on fossil fuels to help promote greenhouse gas reductions, and eliminating nuclear power.

Oops, that was Germany's newly elected government. Our 105th Congress wasn't nearly as noble, and it is a sure bet that the next one will perform as miserably. It seems kind of strange that (with a few notable exceptions) so many incumbents remained in office, given the surprising voter turnout coupled with the lack of substance and dignity that the Washington legislators exhibited prior to these elections. Such results would be more understandable if they waited until after they were re-elected to act like fools. Still, expected GOP gains did not materialize, the Party is under fire from its conservative backers, and its reigning leaders are threatened by upstart freshman. Citizens of this great democracy betrayed all popular predictions of record low participation. Conventional wisdom now declares that the Republicans went too far and their witch-hunt caused huge outpouring of support for the President, which spilled over to his party peers.

Trust them: the talking heads can explain everything. Perhaps, though, the sleaze of the GOP club backfired in a different way and people "voted" for more of the same entertainment, like an instantaneous TV-feedback button that lets producers know which shows capture the biggest audience share. Better scripted and slightly more highbrow than Jerry Springer; far more titillating than the O.J. trial; keep Bill in there and who knows what the next scandal will be? Whatever happens, reportage will be pervasive on the various media, and all packaged for easy consumption. Even yours truly expected the voting decline of recent years to continue -- not as an indication of public protest, though. The numbers of those truly disgusted with the state of politics tend to be masked by the larger majority of apathetic, lazy Americans to whom things are "good enough" and not worth the trouble to bother voting for change. People complain, but Senator Fox remains head of the Congressional Committee on Chicken Coops, and government of, by, and for the people becomes even more a government besides the people and for the election-campaign bankrollers. (Actually, the number of initiatives and referenda on various state ballots, as well as constitutional amendments like we had in Alabama, probably contributed to more people turning out to vote.) The 1998 legislative year produced little of which to be proud. The session convened at the end of January and lasted thirty-eight and one-half weeks, including the extra twelve days beyond the targeted adjournment of October 9th. So anxious were the politicians to get out of D.C. and back to their hometown campaign donors that one might think they hadn't had any time off all year. The Congressional Calendar, though, shows ten and a half weeks of "district work periods": one-week in February; two and a half in April; another week in May; two weeks over July Fourth; and four weeks in August spanning Labor Day. The average taxpayer might consider $136,700 for working half the year a pretty good salary, but there is much more. Leadership positions enjoy additional personal expense accounts, and all members receive taxpayer-subsidized life and health insurance, a budget for their staff (there are 568 Congressional staffers paid $100,000 or more), a $3,000 annual housing allowance tax deduction, free outpatient medical care at the two top military hospitals, expense accounts that cover food and bottled water for Congressional offices, priority reserved parking at the Capital airports, no-cost "research" junkets to resort destinations, free meals from lobbyists (capped at a meager $50), and Senate offices even get free firewood. Finally, they are granted enviable (exorbitant) pensions when they retire from public service. (At that time, many of them simply go through the revolving door and return as highly paid lobbyists who contribute to the political gridlock.) Just how representative of the average American are these professional legislators, considering that twenty Senators and thirty House members report net worth in excess of $2 million each? And with campaign spending at over $900 million dollars for this non-presidential election, how much of this is truly about public service and how much simply boils down to money? (The most recent issue of Mother Jones profiles the top 400 contributors who really "won the election" http://motherjones.com/mother_jones/ND98/toc.html)

So what did our public servants do to earn such largesse? In between threats of another government shutdown (which, by the way, always leaves Congress's budget untouched), the finally came up with an annual appropriations bill loaded with enough "riders" and "pork" to ensure their colleagues' votes. The House and Senate gave up on the balanced budget plank that was integral to the Conservative platform in the previous two elections, and then they attempted to hide the fact by labeling the $20 billion in pork "emergency spending." It is so transparent when they try to serve two masters who have opposing desires - the taxpayer and the campaign contributor -- that one wonders if they really believe they are fooling anyone. A few incumbents paid the price for such conceit, and the GOP leadership is under attack. (Maybe it is worth all of that to dump Newt and humble Trent.) The riders, tacked on to the budget as if Congress couldn't adjourn without using up all the staples in D.C., backtracked on nearly every modest gain for which environmental groups struggled hard against the moneyed interests. Added on were provisions that waived the application of environmental laws to federal grazing permits and construction of certain highways; halted reform of mining regulations on federal land; blocked an increase in the royalties paid for federal oil and gas reserves; held up issuance of new timber management plans in national forests; eased development on the coastal barrier system; and prevented an increase of automobile m.p.g. standards and the application of the standards to sport utility vehicles. A few dissenting voices on the Hill complained that the volume of the appropriations bill with its amendments - some, pages long and 16 inches thick precluded any legislator from reading, much less understanding, all the inclusions.

(For all of the liberal President's vet promises, he signed that which Congress passed on to him.) History hasn't seen anything as blatant and disturbing since the last session, when lobbyists were drafting the anti-environmental bills sponsored by legislators. This "do nothing Congress" didn't exactly do nothing (we might be better off if it had. As the legislative session wound to a a close, they voted down the Patient's Bill of Rights, an act that would help families faced with the trend of paying more to HMOs for less medical care. They refused a boost in the minimum wage that would have lifted more of the working poor out of poverty while increasing Social Security revenues. Meanwhile, Congressional salaries have grown by almost $50,000 over the last ten years. Despite an intense partisan investigation into Democratic contributors, the Republican leadership stifled the nearly impotent campaign finance reform. At the last minute, legislators heard the rumble of public discontent and shied away from cutting Social Security benefits, but they didn't move to put the annual surpluses back into the program instead of into the federal budget. In a bold action that exudes vision and integrity, the final act of the 105th Congress was a vote to authorize President Clinton to award the Medal of Honor to then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt for his actions on San Juan Height in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. It almost brings tears to the eyes to have such leaders we can call our own.


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