House freshmen have been on the job for almost exactly a year, and until now they’ve done little more than talk about cutting the national debt.
But on Wednesday morning, eight lawmakers finally decided to take action. They scheduled a “major announcement,” invited the media and declared that they had a plan to reduce the deficit by — are you sitting down? — $1.435 million.
That amounts to a whopping less-than-0.00001 percent of what the nation owes. Among budget analysts, the technical phrase for this is “chump change.”
The lawmakers announced that they were returning unused portions of their office budgets in the hope that the money could help pay down the debt. And they were feeling mighty pleased with themselves.
“Now, I can hear the pundits saying, ‘Oh, these freshmen, they’re just grandstanding,’” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.. Now, why might a pundit say that? Well, maybe because Duncan delivered these words while posing before TV cameras and holding an 11-by-17-inch mock-up of a check with “taxpayer protection” written in the memo field. Upon completion of the grandstanding, they marched into the Capitol to deliver their “checks” to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“Instead of just returning this money, we’re asking, and then issuing a press release, and then patting ourselves on the back,” Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., said. “We’re going to call on and ask the speaker to use this money to pay down our national debt.”
There were a few wrinkles in this grand plan, however. First, returning office money at the end of the year is a routine event on Capitol Hill. As Politico’s Scott Wong noted this week, virtually every senator does it. Many House members do, too — without holding a news conference.
If anything, the exercise showed that thrift among the freshmen lawmakers is relatively rare. Landry said that he and the others invited any lawmaker who had saved office money last year to join them at the event — but the turnout was less than 10 percent of the freshman Republican class.
Worse, when the members finished their speeches, questioning revealed that they hadn’t even secured a commitment from Boehner that the money would be used to defray debt; it might just be transferred to some other program. “All you can do is ask,” Landry said. So did he ask Boehner? “No,” he said. “We’re going to follow up with a letter to him.”
It was another sign that the revolutionaries who were swept to power in the 2010 midterms with visions of transforming Washington have been reduced to the same type of small and symbolic measures that have occupied lawmakers for years. It was a tacit admission of lowered expectations.
“I was part of a freshman class that pledged to do better, pledged to do bigger,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. But “better” and “bigger” apparently were out of reach, so he returned $145,000 from his office kitty instead. “It’s not enough to talk the walk, you’ve got to walk the walk,” the confused lawmaker continued, “and that’s why you see us here talking about this.”
In other words, they’re talking about walking the talk.
Huelskamp acknowledged the payments — the equivalent of about 12 percent of the lawmakers’ office budgets overall — are “just a small dent.”
And Landry, in his Louisiana drawl, agreed that “it doesn’t take any Ivy League mathematician to do this math. This is like Cajun math, you know?”
But the low dollar value didn’t detract at all from the lawmakers’ overpowering sense of self-righteousness. As skeptical questions came in from the congressional reporters, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, became defensive. “People like yourselves question the motives of people who are trying to cut down the debt,” he complained.
No, but they do question the motives of people who, a year after arriving in Washington with plans to change it forever, march around the Capitol grounds with phony checks.
Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@ washpost.com.