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alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

The recently passed and about-to-be-signed housing bill is a classic example of why people have become cynical about American politics. It also is a prime exhibit in why the Democratic Party has lost its soul and what the next President faces in a country that is verging on becoming ungovernable. H.R. 3221, the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 may go down in history as a piece of legislation that does almost everything wrong and very little right.

The latter is a pretty strong charge, but the seriousness of this issue and the way in which both parties have chosen to deal with it does not bode well for their abilities to pull this nation out of a crisis that is spiraling out of control. Last January when I predicted the housing crisis and its ripples through the economy would be the major issue of the fall election, I did not expect to see us facing the possibility of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac needing what will be the largest bailout in American history.

Alexis de Tocqueville has become “in” again with his name popping up in editorial columns and political commentary. I must admit I have never been a hard-core de Tocqueville fan. His tome and its writing have always seemed way to heavy and in places exhibited the kind of noble savage attitude that many Europeans hold about America and Americans. Maybe that’s why the French have thought Jerry Lewis a cinematic genius. But one reason de Tocqueville may be the political philosopher of the hour is that he saw American democracy as vulnerable to fragmentation which could cause it to crumble as much from within as from the outside.

For example, there is this oft-quoted passage:

Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

De Tocqueville would readily understand the Christmas tree bill that emerged from Congress this past week. Any Congressional analyst worth the title knows when a 600-plus page bill emerges to deal with a single problem, it will be yet another case where the shotgun approach which has become politics as usual inside the Beltway misses the target but scatters pork all over every village and hamlet in America.

We can all cite recent examples of which the famous Alaska “Bridge to Nowhere” may be the most notorious, but you could very well nickname this legislation “The Bill to Nowhere.” In this election year it appears every member of Congress managed to bring home some bacon for the home folks along with supposedly solving the most serious American economic crisis since the Great Depression. The clause that several sources have zeroed in on reads as follows in the actual bill [NOTE AGAIN THIS SITE GIVES YOU THE ACTUAL SOURCE NOT SOME SECONDARY CUT AND PASTE JOB]:

(4) DEFINITIONS- For purposes of this subsection–
(A) APPLICABLE PARTNERSHIP- The term `applicable partnership’ means a domestic partnership that–
(i) was formed effective on August 3, 2007, and
(ii) will produce in excess of 675,000 automobiles during the period beginning on January 1, 2008, and ending on June 30, 2008.

The New York Times describes this as:

A provision tailored narrowly for Chrysler to ensure that it can benefit from a corporate tax incentive even though the company is now structured as a partnership not a corporation.

I am glad the Times and others are there to point this out because anyone trying to navigate this labyrinth of a bill would not have a clue as to what the actual bill language meant. That it should be hidden in such a fashion shows why so many people have become cynical about their government–especially because this little “trick” was so easily found out. Who do these people in Congress think we are?

But the bigger question is what is a favor to Chrysler doing in a bill designed to solve the foreclosure crisis? For the answer to that you might ask Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, whose names pops up as a possible Vice Presidential running mate. This bill is full of weird provisions like that, provisions that make you wonder if the conspiracy theorists are right that we have become a government of lobbyists and not of popular representation. I shudder to think what that old warrior, William Jennings Bryan would make of what has become of our government.

As de Tocqueville would point out the logic of this bill is about rescuing the individual incumbent, which brings us to the deeper meanings of this wrong-headed and preposterous piece of legislation. This bill stands as exhibit A of why political parties are losing their power and why neither party6 has succeeded in pledges to trim the fat from the pork. One of the most important and overlooked trends of our time is about the loss of party discipline in the face of a democracy in which incumbency is increasingly becoming America’s biggest nightmare.

The Center for Voting and Democracy has issued a series of reports over the years about how uncompetitive our elections have become. Their 2007 “Dubious Democracy Report” makes for sober reading. The Center found that what they term the “landslide index,” which measures the percentage of races where incumbents won by a margin of 20% or more, has increased to the point of where 73.1% of congressional races fall into this category. Forty Congressional seats remain competitive, while 375 are not. A total of 150 seats are counted as uncompetitive, meaning their margin of victory is 40% or more! Two hundred and fifty-seven seats are regarded as “untouchable.”

With incumbents so firmly entrenched, they owe their parties virtually nothing. The last speakers who tried to bring unity and discipline to their party–Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay–ended up walking down the capitol steps with their tails between their legs.

Nancy Pelosi’s style could well signal the trend of the future. A politician who built her career on raising large sums of money, Pelosi has become one of the foremost practitioners of a style of governing that cares little about philosophy or consensus but instead operates under the crude strategy of giving something to everyone in order to get legislation passed. The legislation that emerges from such a strategy has no coherent center, no systematic approach, no sense of purpose. What it does have is something for Representative A and something for Representative B.

Obviously this kind of horse-trading has characterized Congress since representatives rode to sessions behind horses, but in the past much of the trading was of a different order: I’ll trade my horse for your horse. But Pelosi has mastered the art of putting all the horses together in monster bills thicker than a phone book, so that you have to navigate the legalese to find the agreements.

The average citizen has neither the time nor the inclination to do this, so relies on those partners in this collusion, the media, to do it for them. The media, of course, do about as good a job of guarding against excess as a binge drinker does guarding a liquor cabinet. The New York Times story on the housing bill represents a classic example of this. First, it gives no direct links to the bill. It does not even give the bill number. Then in the some-of-this-is-good and some-of-this-is-not style of the current media it leaves you without any sense of the heart of the legislation.

With the Pelosi style of governing now standard procedure for both parties, the incoming President–no matter which party he represents–will find it difficult to govern. With over 70% of all those elected owing nothing to either the President or the Party, there is little leverage that can be applied. Every new administration entering 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has pledged to clean up the mess, but recent administrations have accomplished little.

Unfortunately this also involves the Democratic Party. But given the figures in the “Dubious Democracy” report and the six-hundred page housing bill, you begin to wonder if there really is a Democratic Party or rather a loose confederation that more and more is coming to resemble one of those European parties. For example you have the Blue Dogs, forty-some so-called Democrats who vote a great deal with the Republicans and whose first loyalty is to each other not the larger party.

Then you have the Democratic Leadership Council of Bill and Hillary Clinton and others which also operates as a quasi-independent force. Again as with the Blue Dogs their first loyalty is to their faction not to the party.

Finally there are all the interest groups that right now side with the Democrats, but whose members impose litmus tests on candidates that at times put them at odds with their party.

If asked to name what the Democrats stand for right now, my guess is most Party members could not. And so you get legislation like the Housing Bill. The Republicans used to be able to quote Ronald Reagan about less government and less taxes, but this bill, supported by Republicans and about to be signed by a Republican President makes that also seem dubious.

In the end the Housing Bill is about a lack of moral courage and imagination. It tries to solve a crisis the easiest way possible, by giving something to everyone and thereby hurting no one. Curiously the government is behaving not unlike its big corporations and its credit-card-driven consumers: just charge it and we’ll pay it off later.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates:

Enacting [the Housing} proposal would increase direct spending by $25 billion over the 2009-2018 period.

It also states:

That estimate reflects a greater than 50 percent chance that the government would provide no financial assistance to the GSEs over the next 17 months, and nearly a 5 percent chance that such assistance would need to cover as-yet unrecognized losses greater than
$100 billion.

I’m not sure I like the notion of my government gambling with 50-50 odds or the idea that there is 5% chance this bill could end up costing $100 billion. If Barack Obama wins the White House and the Democrats retain or increase their control of Congress they will rue the day they made this Devil’s Bargain. To quote de Tocqueville:

The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.

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