Politics & Policy

Welcome to Washington’s Silly Season

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (right) speak to the media after a meeting with President Trump at the White House, May 22, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
It’s now a permanent state of affairs.

Somebody tried to play a dirty trick on Nancy Pelosi, slowing down and editing a video of her to make it appear as though she were drunk and incoherent. That’s pretty low: Nancy Pelosi is, whatever her other flaws as a public figure, generally sober and incoherent.

The speaker, for her part, is not exactly conducting her affairs with high seriousness of late. She argued last week that President Donald Trump’s family should stage an “intervention.” The president had briefly attended and then abruptly ended a meeting with Democratic leaders, arguing — not without some reason — that negotiating about taxes and infrastructure with people who pretend to believe that he is guilty of treason and who are seriously talking about impeaching him for . . . something . . . is not the best use of his time. Why waste time on “Chuck and Nancy,” the Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Comprehensively-Useless of American politics, when he could be watching reruns of Fox and Friends?

The president has reached into his vast arsenal of schoolyard-bully nicknames — that’s how you know he’s serious! — and christened the speaker of the House “Crazy Nancy.” The Democratic leader in the Senate is to be “Crying Chuck.”

Well.

Washington no longer does much in the way of day-to-day governance and instead careers from crisis to crisis and convulsion to convulsion, the most recent being Friday’s derailment of an emergency disaster-relief bill. It was an end-of-the-second-act setback, a standard genre convention for legislative tragicomedy.

Because Congress has more or less abandoned regular order and the traditional norms of the legislative process, the emergency disaster-relief bill had been scheduled to pass by “unanimous consent” rather than on a traditional vote — this is a three-day weekend, after all! But the thing about unanimous consent is that it has to be unanimous — “It only takes one person to object to unanimous consent,” CNN reports, for all the complete and thoroughgoing illiterates in its audience — and one Republican, Representative Chip Roy of Texas, didn’t like the idea of tens of billions of dollars being spent without members of Congress being present for a vote. So the consent was not unanimous.

What followed was Washington corporately making approximately the same panicked whelping noise that my dachshund makes when she’s getting her toenails clipped. Pelosi, speaking in the kulaks-must-be-liquidated-as-a-class idiom of the day, called the objection an act of “sabotage” and complained that it would make “victims wait even longer” for help. Some of the disasters covered by the bill happened years ago (the terrible storm that savaged Puerto Rico was in 2017) but, years later, Washington’s big worry is . . . a three-day weekend.

Strange times.

President Trump has a disaster-relief program of his own in the works, some $16 billion to be paid out to American farmers who are victims of the man-made disaster that is President Trump’s trade war with China, a major consumer of U.S. farm exports. President Trump, who is one of the world’s biggest fans of tariffs, does not actually know how tariffs work, and he confidently announced that the billions would be paid for by China, in much the same way as he confidently insisted that Mexico would pay for the wall. (Where’s that wall, anyway?) Tariffs are in reality a sales tax on American importers and consumers, who will pay the bill.

Trump’s trade war has turned economic life upside down for many American farmers, and the damage done will amount to a great deal more than $16 billion. But he stood in front of a bunch of farmers and announced, with a straight face, that he was “honored to have done this for you,” as though he were the tribune of the plebs. One fellow from Idaho wore a red cap reading “Make Potatoes Great Again.”

The debt continues piling up, and the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare are a fiscal disaster waiting to be triggered. President Trump’s demeaning nickname for Kim Jong-Un does not seem to have deterred North Korea’s nuclear-missile program, and that U.S. withdrawal from Syria that was supposed to happen keeps not quite happening.

Speaker Pelosi is right. It is time for an intervention. But not the one she has in mind.

It is tempting to assume that Washington has entered early into its traditional late-summer “silly season,” but the fact is that silly season has become the permanent state of affairs. That’s the kind of luxury that is more expensive than anybody understands until the moment comes when we can no longer afford it.

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