Erik Larson

Feb 28, 2010

The Hypocritic Oaf

Politicians talk a lot, and it’s fair to say that most of their verbiage has the overarching purpose of getting us— the American people, that is— to agree with them; with the rightness of their actions and agendas. Securing our agreement is important, of course, because in democracies the collective approval or disapproval of the citizenry gets politicians hired or fired. As Senate Republican newcomer Scott Brown pointed out in a debate in his now successful Massachussetts Senatorial bid: “With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedy’s seat, it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the people’s seat”. And so it is.

One unfortunate consequence of talking so much, of convincing so much, of arguing so much, however, is that politicians tend to fall in and out of tensions and contradictions, almost daily. This has the unfortunate consequence of pulling the rest of us into this sorry state of affairs, so that pundits and media people and ordinary political junkies sympathetic with the latest views espoused by Democrats or Republicans routinely end up arguing points that we ourselves denounced weeks or months ago. The contours and lines of our political debates keep forming and reforming around the different things the politicians say.

Take Chris Matthews, of “Hardball” fame on MSNBC, for instance, who has recently been warming up to supporting Senate Democrats’ apparent intention to use reconciliation—the budget procedure that relies on simple majority vote (51%) to pass legislation in the Senate—to pass health care reform. On January 25, Matthews excoriated Congressman Alan “keep Florida weird” Grayson for proposing reconciliation for health reform. Said Matthews, with all of the loud confidence of someone absolutely convinced of their own rectitude: “You can’t create a program through reconciliation” (he might have added, given his tone, “and everyone knows that!”). Matthews then further clarified for the Democratic Congressman the proper application of reconciliation, that it allows one to change only “fiscal numbers”, by using it either to “raise taxes”, or “to cut program spending”.

Matthews, circa January 25, put forward a view that many lawmakers have agreed with, at one time or other anyway, and that seemed to provide a simple heuristic for determining when reconciliation might be acceptable. Former Senate leader Bill Frist, for instance, writes in the WSJ that he supported use of reconciliation for tax refunds in 2001 (he points out that there was a budgetary surplus at the time), yet opposed it when Republicans tried to use it to extend prescription drug coverage in Medicare, presumably because program expansion is not the proper application of budget reconciliation. (The Medicare Modernization Act, which Frist supported, passed “through the normal legislative procedure” in 2003.) So it seems that there is, in fact, a reasonable criterion for determining when to use reconciliation. It’s for budgetary adjustments (including, it seems, tax rates); it’s not for programs, new or expanded, like health care.

Yet, almost amazingly, as if one needs to first rub one’s eyes to make sure it’s the same person, Matthews returns to reconciliation when talking to Andrea Mitchell (MSNBC), on the day of the Health Care Summit, February 25, 2010. Now, just one month later, Matthews is confident that health care reform is “not a program”. He assures us that “it is basically a financial question, it’s not a health question. How do we finance, at the federal level, health care?”. So this is New Matthews. It’s not that reconciliation would be used for program expansion (which we all know, courtesy of Matthews last month, that this is not what reconciliation is intended for, and everyone knows that), it’s that the Health Care bill currently debated in Congress is not a program-level discussion at all, according to New Matthews. Presto! It’s now some obscure budgetary concern, and we ought therefore to use reconciliation after all.

Now, if this magic trick was played only by Chris Matthews—who sometimes exudes a school boy eagerness to prove to his guests and viewers that he knows how politics works, and other times seems interested only in generating the sort of heat that increases ratings—and maybe a few desparate Democrats in Congress, we might hold out hope for some fact, some objective Truth about Reconciliation we could use to decide between Old Matthews and New Matthews. We might hold out hope for a way to move forward. But, depressingly, digging further one discovers that statements about the proper use of reconciliation over the years are even more contorted than Matthews, and likely to encourage yet more cynicism.

For instance, in April 2005, Democrats in Congress, discussing tax cuts proposed by the Bush administration, seemed almost enraged by the suggestion that reconciliation might be used at all, for tax cutting or anything else. Then Senator Obama, for example, warned ominously that use of reconciliation might “change the character of the Senate forever”, resulting in “majoritarian absolute power on either side”, which is “not what the Founders intended”. And Hillary Clinton castigated President Bush about his reconciliation plans, warning against his foolish, childish, and sure to be destructive desire to just “change the rules, do it the way I want it done”. It’s a “bridge too far”, she fulminates. “Restrain yourself”. New York Senator Charles Schumer joins in, taking up the dire “our Union is at stake” tone struck by Senator Obama: “We are on the precipice of a crisis, a Constitutional Crisis. The checks and balances which have been at the core of this Republic, are about to be evaporated, by the Nuclear Option”. And, interestingly, no less than current Senate leader Harry Reid weighed in on this dangerous technique, arguing against reconciliation (again on deep Consitutional grounds), pointing out that the “filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government”.

Okay, history lesson over; back to our present concern, health care. On this issue Mr. Reid says flatly, as early as November last year, that “I’m not using reconciliation” , which squares with his zeal for supermajorities and filibusters back in 2005, but fast forward a few months, and his office now announces that it’s a “real possibility” . And it seems President Obama has recovered from his grave concerns about majoritarian government thwarting what the Founders intended, and is now apparently preparing for the reconciliation process with House leader Pelosi and Reid. Of course, Left-leaning Schumer now supports reconciliation (again, he’s recovered from all that “Constitutional crisis” business that had him apoplectic in 2005), and while Ms. Clinton is out of the line of fire on domestic issues as Secretary of State, it’s reasonable to assume that she’s much more sanguine about the Congress, and the Administration, controlling itself and resisting the stupid “my way or the highway” urge to improperly use reconciliation that she had to endure in the Bush years as Senator of New York. My, how times do change.

At any rate, my central thesis here is that politicians say a lot, and much of what they say is contradictory, and that if we’re not careful, the rest of us will get sucked into cheerleading for them (and so the rest of us will end up promulgating contradictory views, like Old and New Matthews, which is bad). Exactly how all of this happens, again and again, is somewhat of a mystery to me. For instance, how is it that partisan politicians and their supporters seem always to believe that only the Other Side has these embarrassing problems with consistency and hypocrisy, never them? How is it, for example, that liberal blogs like Think Progress can finger point at Republicans who used reconciliation in years past, but who now oppose it with health care (as if Think Progress had ferreted out the one true case of inconsistency in the current debate). Such analysis of course blithely disregards the reasonable-sounding distinction between past uses of reconciliation for budgetary matters (including taxation rates) and the current interest in its use for social program expansion. It ignores moderate Democrats who express concern about the use of reconciliation for health care. It ignores the dire concern of Democrats, including Obama himself, when discussing reconciliation not five years ago. Think Progress doesn’t seem concerned about any of this, because the hypocrisy is all over there , with the Republicans, you see. There’s no need to think about it any further.

So, it’s hard not to get cynical. Who cares what they say? The debate just keeps moving along, contradictions, hypocrisy, and all. As Left Wing comedian Bill Mahrer recently asked on his “Real Time” show on HBO, revealing marvelous ignorance of the history of reconciliation: “what’s wrong with a simple vote?”. What is wrong with a simple vote, anyway? Perhaps he might have asked Mr. Obama that in 2005.