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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Yes, but compared to what?  

Noah Millman at Gideon's Blog:
There is something profoundly broken in Washington. This is not the first bill that has been produced in this decade that seems designed to be a disaster. The farm bill, highway bill and energy bills were hodge-podges designed to waste money and achieve little. Bush's tax bills had a few sensible core ideas but were also filled with anti-productive loopholes and loaded with gimmicks like automatic sunset provisions that no one could possibly favor on the merits; they were designed with public-relations in mind more than policy. The reorganization of the government that created the Homeland Security Department was barely thought-out and has proved a disaster; ditto for the reorganization of intelligence. And then we had the Medicare drug bill, an amalgam of the worst ideas of both parties. And now we have this immigration monstrosity.

This was not always the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, Congress was able to craft a variety of bills that basically did what they said. Reagan's 1981 tax cuts and 1986 tax reform each did basically what they were supposed to do. Welfare reform and farm-subsidies reform in the 1990s each did basically what they were supposed to do. The 1986 immigration bill, for all that it is much-criticized in retrospect, was sold as an amnesty; it failed, in large part because it was not enforced, but it was not designed to fail, nor was it structured and sold in a deceptive manner.

Something has gone very, very wrong in Washington. Occam's Razor would suggest that what has gone wrong is that the Bush Administration is completely indifferent to the legislative process. On some deep level, they don't care whether we have good laws. That is a very, very damning indictment, far more damning, in my view, than the charge that they are simply incompetent or that they are deceptive, saying one thing but intending another. It may also be an insufficient explanation; Congress, and the Senate in particular, seems almost eager to take mediocre bills and by heroic effort transform them into positively awful bills. But if the President cared about whether we have good laws, some of these laws would not be on the books. So presumably he doesn't care.

It would probably be best if no laws whatever were passed between now and January 2009. I simply no longer trust Washington to produce legislation on any topic whatever.
I don't go along with Gideon's razor – not because I disagree (I really don't), but because I'm uncomfortable with imputing motives where unnecessary. (And saying people simply don't care enough is too close to an adolescent whine in the face of imperfection.) Bush's diffidence about bad laws may have a lot to do with his history as a governor in Texas, where he could rely on the big dogs in the legislature to come up with something adequate for him to sign; clearly no longer the case.
And he may truly believe his job as Chief Executive is strictly to enforce the laws, not to help create them. (Or to come up with work-arounds for some of the garbage he gets sent and doesn't veto; hence the signing statements.) Remember, he actually expected SCOTUS to strike down McCain-Feingold. Not a good reason to sign it anyway, of course, but logically defensible to defer to their constitutional role, with an expectation of judicial support for the First Amerndment.

Then again, he may simply not care.

But also because I think Noah draws the problem too small. Yes, Congress is utterly, reprehensibly, dysfunctional. But can anyone name an institution in this country that currently is functioning adequately? Bueller? Anyone?

The executive branch doesn't seem to be working terribly well. Bush is hardly the incompetent boob he's caricatured as, but he's been a disaster at using the bully pulpit to inform and inspire. Which is a pretty significant part of the job, especially in wartime. He really is AWOL on this one.

The so-called system of so-called justice is no better, the occasional convictions of the blatantly guilty (Moussaoui, Lay and Skilling) notwithstanding. I'm heartened by consecutive rational rulings from the re-configured SCOTUS, but that only shows how low the bar has fallen of late.

The self-elected fourth branch of government? The media seems to be trying to make Congress look competent and above-board by comparison.

The CIA, INS, and FEMA were all dysfunctional before Congress waded in to make things much, much worse.

Education? Please.

Medicine? The inability to figure out payments and coverage is distracting attention from the far greater inability to work out treatments and allocations and ends.

Organized religion? Not Catholics (outside the papacy), not mainstream Protestants (hemorrhaging members), maybe not Evangelicals (discovering scalability issues).

What about the Democratic party? Yeah, right. Even less functional than the down-ticket GOP.

Big Labor? Hollywood? Publishing? Wall Street? The arts? Even baseball?

The only American institution that seems to be functioning competently these days is the military (and I'm not entirely sure that's true above the O-6 grade). And that's a scary thought on a great number of levels.

posted by Kelly | 8:34 PM link