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Potemkin Parliament
Washington’s governing systems are in a bad way.

Capitol Hill the morning after the budget deal, October 17, 2013.

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Mark Steyn

The least dispiriting moment of another grim week in Washington was the sight of ornery veterans tearing down the Barrycades around the war memorials on the National Mall, dragging them up the street, and dumping them outside the White House. This was, as Kevin Williamson wrote at National Review, “as excellent a gesture of the American spirit as our increasingly docile nation has seen in years.” Indeed. The wounded vet with two artificial legs balancing the Barrycade on his Segway was especially impressive. It would have been even better had these disgruntled citizens neatly lined up the Barrycades across the front of the White House and round the sides, symbolically Barrycading him in as punishment for Barrycading them out. But, in a town where an unarmed woman can be left a bullet-riddled corpse merely for driving too near His Benign Majesty’s palace and nobody seems to care, one appreciates a certain caution.

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By Wednesday, however, it was business as usual. Which is to say the usual last-minute deal just ahead of the usual make-or-break deadline to resume spending as usual. There was nothing surprising about this. Everyone knew the Republicans were going to fold. Folding is what Republicans do. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are so good at folding Obama should hire them as White House valets. So the only real question was when to fold. They could at least have left it for a day or two after the midnight chimes of October 17 had come and gone. It would have been useful to demonstrate that just as the sequester did not cause the sky to fall and the shutdown had zero impact on the life of the country so this latest phoney-baloney do-or-die date would not have led to the end of the world as we know it. If you’re going to place another trillion dollars of debt (or more than the entire national debts of Canada and Australia combined) on the backs of the American people in one grubby late-night deal, you might as well get a teachable moment out of it.

The GOP was concerned about polls showing their approval ratings somewhere between Bashar Assad and the ebola virus, but it’s hard to see why capitulation should command popularity: The late Osama bin Laden’s famous observation about the strong horse and the weak horse has some relevance to domestic politics, too. Republicans spent a lot of time whining that, if Obama was prepared to negotiate with the Iranians, the Syrians, and the Russians, why wouldn’t he negotiate with the GOP? Well, the obvious answer is Rouhani, Assad, and Putin don’t curl up in a fetal position at the first tut-tut from Bob Schieffer or Diane Sawyer.

The thesis of my recent book After America is stated on page six thereof — “that the prevailing political realities of the United States do not allow for any meaningful course correction.” That’s what the political class confirmed yet again this week. Which brings me to the sentence immediately following: “And, without meaningful course correction, America is doomed.”

Washington’s governing systems are in a bad way. Government by “continuing resolution,” a term foreign to most foreigners, ought to be embarrassing to any self-governing, not to say self-respecting, people. Instead, in the course of the “shutdown,” this repugnant phrase advanced to acronymic status — “CR,” as cable news had it, the pundit class lovingly caressing this latest insider jargon with their customary onanistic shiver. Presented as a resolution of the Obamacare/debt-ceiling standoff, the “CR” came, as the car dealers say, fully loaded — including a $174,000 payment to the widow of New Jersey’s multimillionaire senator Frank Lautenberg. Because, even when you’re saddling the next generation of Americans with another trillion bucks of debt, six-figure payouts to the relicts of the most exclusive rich man’s club in America is just the way it is.

How can you “control” spending under such a system? Congress has degenerated into a Potemkin parliament, its ersatz nature embodied by those magnificent speeches senators give to themselves, orating for the benefit of TV sound bites into the cavernous silence of an empty room, an upper chamber turned isolation chamber. The “law of the land” means machinations and procedural legerdemain culminating in a show vote on unread omnibus fill-in-the-blanks pseudo-legislation to be decided after the fact by the regulatory bureaucracy.



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