The gold standard in contemptuous politics remains Emperor Caligula’s appointment of his horse, Incitatus, to the Roman senate. Well, Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is getting some long-delayed senatorial payback.
Figuratively speaking, Reid plans to drop on the president’s desk a steaming pile of what Incitatus used to deposit on the stable floor. This sack of non-Shinola goes by the technical name of an omnibus spending bill, which the White House has indicated President Obama will sign. It wraps together all the bills to fund government operations beginning January 1 into a single $1.2 trillion monstrosity so laden down with spending grotesqueries that it comes out to more than $623 million a page — and it’s 1,924 pages long. By my rough estimate, that’s about $3.1 million per word.
It’s a bold gambit by Reid and the Democrats, who have failed to pass a single appropriations bill this fiscal year — a historic first. Now, a lame-duck Congress that shouldn’t be convening at all wants to use a looming deadline for a vote on raising the national-debt ceiling to cram through legislation that will make the budget and the deficit continue to balloon like Marlon Brando in his later years.
Like Lloyd Bridges in Airplane! picking the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, the Democrats have chosen a bad moment to stick to their old ways. We had this thing called an “election” just over a month ago, in which the American people said no more of this horse-stable-filler.
Saint Augustine famously said, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet,” and that’s the basic rationale driving Reid. This is one last trip to the fiscal cathouse before he joins the monastery — which is why this mess comes with $8 billion in earmarked trinkets for the trollops.
But it’s important to understand that earmarks aren’t the problem. I mean, who among us can second-guess Reid’s effort to spend $1 million on arthropod damage in his home state? (I’m giving Reid the benefit of the doubt that these are huge mutant arthropods created by nuclear testing in the desert Southwest, like the giant ants in Them!)
Earmarks are political bribes, inducing politicians to vote for bad laws they’d otherwise oppose. Few sane people would vote for this crazy parody of everything voters hate about Washington if there weren’t something in it for them. That’s why the omnibus bill provides $2.5 million for bike paths in Illinois that residents of Illinois don’t think are worth paying for with their own dollars, and $307,000 for more research on “small fruits.” (Why are they so small? Did they smoke cigarettes in their youth, stunting their growth?)
There’s a lot of talk in Washington these days about the need for Barack Obama to “triangulate” — i.e., move to the center to regain the support of the independents that he has lost and will need to get reelected. Conservatives — myself included — are inclined to think this will be hard for him because Obama is a man of the Left and is committed to defending his liberal accomplishments (chiefly Obamacare), which is hard to do while moving to the center. It’s like trying to reconcile with your wife while still keeping your mistress on a stipend.
The bipartisan tax-cut deal is cited by many as proof that Obama is, in fact, moderating. Eh, I don’t quite buy it, for the simple reason that Obama says at every turn that he hates the two-year compromise and is doing it only because the “hostage-taking” Republicans are making him. That doesn’t make him sound more moderate, it makes him sound weak. Worse, it makes him sound like a very liberal president who’s just biding his time for more liberal victories ahead.
Well, he has had a second chance with the omnibus bill. And, unlike the tax deal, Obama didn’t need to violate his principles or campaign promises. He just needed to adhere to them.
In 2009, Obama — who campaigned against Washington’s earmark culture — signed another pork-filled bill but said at the time, “This piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and demand.”
More recently, Obama pointed to his failure to live up to his promises of transparency and to change the way Washington works as the key causes of the Shellacking of 2010. The American people wanted better, he said. But once again given the chance to prove he actually meant it, he opted to hold the voters in contempt and throw them under the omnibus.
Somewhere Incitatus is smiling.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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