By Shelli Dawdy
During this seemingly endless lame duck session of Congress, there have been several pieces of onerous legislation discussed, debated, and commented on. Recognizing the likelihood of a historical drubbing on Election Day, Democrats withheld action on key legislation, clearly planning an effort to pass their wish list before losing their current level of power. Republicans objectively had an uphill battle to fight under the circumstances, but it would be naive to blindly accept that's the only reason they have been so ineffective. The whole lame duck episode smells fishy to me, and it's not just the red herrings.
While Democrats are busy taking a wrecking ball to our economy and fundamental Constitutional principles with their Progressive agenda, too many Republicans are complicit because they are still busily playing politics rather than working to make proper arguments and to address core problems.
Since reconvening after the election, the fur has been flying in Washington. It's been a real mess trying to follow events with accuracy or a proper focus on what requires prioritization. Many of us see these kinds of barrages and label it as the tactic that it is: it's difficult to stop anything when you're trying to fight everything. Politicians on both sides of the aisle use the situation to their advantage, knowingly and unknowingly.
The Democratic wish list for the lame duck session included measures that would have spent an additional trillion+ dollars, amnesty for some illegal immigrants, and a weakening of America's military and national defense capabilities. While the legislation regarding amnesty, the START treaty, and repeal of don't ask, don't tell are clear to most, I'm finding the confusion is centered around the two "big ticket" items on the list.
People I know who work hard at being informed did not realize there were two bills that involved spending a lot of money; the "tax compromise" and a budget measure. Of course, anyone paying attention is well aware that the Bush tax cuts were set to expire at the end of this year, which meant there was a setup for a 2010 election showdown. That matter has now played out; the final bill passed by both House of Congress and signed by the President last week extended the tax cuts for two years with some adjustments to the death tax and extended unemployment benefits for an additional 13 months.
RED HERRING #1: Total "Cost" of Tax Compromise
I spend a lot of time looking into these issues myself, but admittedly missed the fact that the quoted $860 billion price tag for the compromise included more than $500 billion in an estimated "cost" of the extended tax cuts. I try hard not to make factual errors, but when I do, it requires a correction. I should have looked more at the details regarding just what the $860 billion included. Applying a "cost" to tax cuts requires a mentality that the government is entitled to taxpayers' earnings. And are they really tax "cuts" at all? (But more on that in a moment.) It is good news that the tax compromise will not balloon the deficit by another $500 billion but my overall opinion about the bill stands. Why? Serious problems remain; our economy is at a stand still and this bill did nothing but maintain the status quo - it simply kept tax rates in place that have been in existence since passed in 2003. There was an actual tax increase included; the rates had been gradually decreased to zero as of 2010. In 2011, the rate will be 35%, constituting a risk to small businesses and family farms. What will this bill really do to improve the economy? Let's consider a moment how simply keep the status quo with this economy can somehow be warped into a proclamation of victory. If nothing else, it was a masterful PR victory. Besides the smoke and mirrors trick on tax rates and guaranteed continuing high unemployment, the warning from Moody's regarding the tax compromise about lowering America's credit rating still stands. (If you're looking for details on this reasoning, see the article I originally wrote about the compromise.)
Although the tax cut compromise includes a big, juicy red herring, it remains a fact that there was political strategy for Republicans; there is an advantage in setting up another election year show down, for 2012, on tax cuts.
RED HERRING #2 and #3: Earmarks
Confusion runs high regarding the other spending measure during this lame duck session. Because Democrats failed to pass a budget for the fiscal year beginning in October 2010, temporary continuing resolutions have been passed periodically. Democrats introduced an Omnibus bill totaling $1.2 trillion.
Many of us have been hearing a great deal about earmarks since the November 2 election. Many Republicans signed on to an outright ban of the practice and the whole idea received by many who desire government rein in spending as a hopeful sign of a permanent shift by the GOP.
Red Herring #2 (from Democrats): Republican earmark banners are hypocrites
That $1.2 trillion Omnibus bill presented by Democrats included a reported 6600+ earmarks. The red herring here is a story no one besides the Wall Street Journal is talking about. In constructing the bill, Democrats included all of the earmarks entered through out the past year, absent any recent discussion. The tactic at work here should be obvious; Democrats wanted to make Republicans look like hypocrites and force them to be left only with an array of bad choices; take the political hit for being hypocrites, a hit for shutting down government (a disaster more than a decade ago), and a hit from special interests for being reminded of what they stood to lose by way of earmarks. Of course, in attempting to corner Republicans, the Democratic brains trust didn't mind the many earmarks from within their own ranks. There were plenty of requests from both sides of the aisle.
Republicans did hold their ground on the disastrous omnibus bill, thank goodness.
Earmarks are a volatile issue; while media, including Fox News, portrays agreement on the right side of the aisle on the subject, that's not an accurate portrayal. There are conservatives who argue earmarks are a good thing. Just do a Google search on "earmarks are good" and you will find a wide range of articles saying just that, from both the right and the left.
Red Herring #3 (from Republicans): Earmarks are bad because they balloon the budget out of control
As is too often the case, too many Republicans have adopted a position due to its political popularity, not out of proper principle, or at least, their rhetoric makes it appear so. Republicans against earmarks, from what I've seen, are opposed to them for pure fiscal reasons.
An examination of the earmarks issue reveals that it is not pure dollars that cause earmarks to be a problem, if one believes that they are. (For a perspective on why earmarks are good, see THIS ARTICLE.) Of that $1.2 trillion price tag for the Omnibus bill, for instance, $8.1 billion is earmarks. Of course $8.1 billion is a significant amount of money; Nebraska's annual budget is about $3.4 billion. The bottom line is, earmarks in and of themselves are not the cause of our federal deficit problems.
A 2005 Harvard briefing paper details earmark practices, including the total percentage of the federal budget; for the period 1994 - 2005, the percentage average 1 - 2%. More recent figures are available; had 100% of all earmarks been banned in 2010, the cut to the budget would have been .56%. Total earmarks were $16.5 billion (according to CAGW) as part of the $3.4 trillion overall budget.
Again, $16.5 billion is over 4 times Nebraska's entire annual budget, it's nothing to sneeze at. We should be watching every dime, but it's not a cure-all, which is the impression conveyed by proponents. It is a red herring, a distraction for the simple fact that it obscures focus away from addressing the things that are disastrously ballooning our federal deficit to an extent that is or may have already become impossible to solve. Politicians don't want to touch any of the sacred cows that are our problem; the "entitlement" programs and entire agencies and departments that are unnecessary and at best, Constitutionally ambiguous, such as the Departments of Homeland Security and Education.
It is a further red herring due to a lack of focus on the real issue associated with earmarks; they are political goodies to be handed out. The bottom line is that they are paybacks and bribes. Honesty and accountability are the real issues here. And, as I noted at the beginning, this is precisely the problem with Republican strategy. It's politics, not principles.
RED HERRING #4: GOP pledge to roll back to 2008 spending levels
GOP leadership's seriousness about spending is questionable. The pledge to reduce spending to 2008 levels is one of the best examples to prove my point. As the graph below shows, spending dramatically (and historically) increased to dangerous levels by the time we reached 2008, and, as pointed out above, are largely caused by systemic problems. And this is yet another red herring.
The lame duck session has been filled with distractions. For the past few days, talking heads and pundits have been talking about who won and who lost, debating whether it was the President, the Democrats in general, the Republicans, or the Tea Party.
But, that's entirely the wrong question. People who are serious about the state of our country will reject these worn out assessments; political wins and losses are irrelevant at this stage. The important questions are simple ones...did the Constitution win or lose, did actions by our elected officials strengthen or weaken our Republic...did we, the American people win or lose liberty?