DANA MILBANK

Can Congress get serious?

Posted March 20, 2011, at 3:25 p.m.
Last modified March 21, 2011, at 5:48 a.m.

House Republicans called an “emergency meeting” last week, suspending the usual procedures to rush an urgent piece of legislation to the floor.

Had the new majority finally come up with a job-creation bill? A compromise with Democrats to rein in the deficit?

Not quite. This particular emergency involved the lower end of the FM-radio dial. Republicans, in an urgent budget-cutting maneuver, were voting to cut off funding for National Public Radio. All $5 million of it — or one ten-thousandth of 1 percent of the federal budget.

The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office ran the numbers and calculated the impact this emergency measure would have on government spending: “No effect.”

Five minutes after acting on this budgetary emergency, House Republicans voted to continue the war in Afghanistan — which costs about $10 billion. Per month. They then flew home for a vacation.

“I wish,” longtime Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., said in a moment of candor, “this could have been handled a little differently.”

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner both say they want an “adult conversation” about the nation’s problems. But so far the discussion resembles one that might be heard on a school bus.

Democrats would have been in a good position to point out the Republicans’ lack of seriousness, except they were engaged in their own trivial pursuit. On Thursday, the same day the Republicans were doing battle with Diane Rehm, the House was also debating a bill by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, ordering full withdrawal from Afghanistan by year end. Kucinich recently established his gravitas by suing the House cafeteria over an olive pit he found in his lunch.

Thanks to Obama’s veto pen, it was clear even before the debate that nothing would come of either proposal. Nor should it have: Neither a vindictive slap at public broadcasting nor a pell-mell pullout from Afghanistan would be good policy — particularly when Americans want action on the economy.

The lack of grown-up behavior is driving Americans to despair. In the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, only 26 percent said they were optimistic about the future when “thinking about our system of government and how well it works.” That’s less than half the level of optimism felt in 1974 during Watergate.

Large majorities scold both parties for refusing to compromise, and two-thirds of Americans grasp what lawmakers on both sides won’t accept: We need both spending cuts and tax increases to solve the fiscal mess. Republicans in particular have seen a swift loss of trust in their ability to handle the deficit and the economy, and little wonder. They won the House majority pledging to deal with jobs and the budget and instead are tackling Planned Parenthood and NPR.

As if providing a soundtrack for the frivolity in the House chamber, Thursday’s proceedings were twice interrupted by the sound of bagpipers performing nearby for St. Patrick’s Day. When one Republican member’s phone played a calypso ring tone, he let it continue until the call went to voicemail.

In the end, the Democrats proved somewhat more adult in restraining impulses. Party leaders opposed Kucinich’s Afghanistan pullout plan as irresponsible, and most Democrats voted against it.

The Republicans, however, were not as easily dissuaded from folly. During the debate over Afghanistan, cost was no object. “War is expensive and it should not be measured in the cost of money,” said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas. But the 0.0001 percent of the budget going to NPR was a fiscal emergency.

“It’s about saving taxpayer money,” proclaimed Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the Republican floor leader.

But this was undercut by freshman Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., who argued that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves in is sinful and tyrannical.” Tyrannical? “We are not trying to harm NPR,” he added. “We are actually trying to liberate them from federal tax dollars.”

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in his speech, complained that NPR’s “programming often veers far from what most Americans would like.” He said NPR was being targeted because it advocates “one ideology.”

And everybody knows what ideology that is. It’s the ideology of Click and Clack, from Car Talk. Rep. Anthony Weiner, (N.Y.), a Democratic troublemaker, came to the floor with a poster pleading “Save Click & Clack.”

“The American people are not concerned about jobs and the economy,” Weiner said sardonically. “They’re staring at their radio, saying, ‘Get rid of Click and Clack.’ Finally, my Republican friends are doing it. Kudos to you!”

Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His e-mail address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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