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December 12, 2004

Bad Congress! No Biscuit for You!

Note: this is a post recovered from my old blog, before it died of an insufficient backup. Any comments/trackbacks on it have not been brought over, but can be seen with the original. The date is that of the original posting.


Fred Barnes on Fox News tonight said of the intelligence reform bill just passed by the the House and due to be passed by the Senate tomorrow: "This is a dumb bill." I concur. But rather than address why the bill is dumb (Dave Shuler of The Glittering Eye does that nicely), I'm interested in why it is that the Congress would pass a manifestly dumb law, and do it very, very quickly.

From a cynical point of view, this is actually the perfect bill. Why so?

  • It looks like Congress is "doing something."
  • There is almost no meaningful opposition in Congress.
  • It takes away an issue from potential opponents in the next election.
  • If it fails, the blame doesn't fall on Congress.
  • It transfers power to the Federal government.
  • It spends money.

It is inherent to the character of politicians that they live to wield power. In order to wield power in a representatively-governed country, a politician must be elected, and then re-elected frequently. In order to get re-elected, a politician must therefore avoid criticism. One sure way to defuse potential criticism is to have a policy on every problem.

This is why the President and the executive agencies have so many policies, many not ever acted on, and it's why the Congress passes so many laws. After all, once Congress passes a law on any given problem, that problem is no longer unlegislated. Since the Congress' job is to legislate, their job is then done and, from their point of view, the problem is solved, and thus no liability to them. Whether the law solves the problem at hand, or even whether it is Constitutional, is really beside the point: Congressmen don't tend to fail of re-election for voting on a bad law, but they do lose by voting against things.

It's very difficult to take a controversial stand, if you are a politician, because such stands hand ammunition to your opponent in the next election. It's much easier to go with the flow, whether that means straight party-line voting or voting with an assured majority. Here is an opportunity to do both, because the leadership of both parties backs the bill.

Let's say that the US is attacked again. In that case, any given Congressman can simply say that the vast majority of the Congress supported the bill, it was a good bill, it's just that the implementation was flawed. But if that fails, there's a fallback: the bill implemented the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, and how can Congress possibly be blamed for doing what the "experts" said needed to be done - not to mention the 9/11 widows! Either way, the politicians can disclaim responsibility and shift it, either to their political opponents or at least to someone who can't be easily disparaged.

The lust for power should not be underestimated. For Congressmen, power has two requisites: a rationale for why Congress should be able to legislate on a particular matter, and the expenditure of money.

It doesn't really matter to most Congressmen whether or not a law is Constitutional. What matters is whether they can make the law stick. (From their point of view, it's the job of the courts to enforce the Constitution. I will refrain from ranting, but it's a close call.) This requires some rationale, of which the most abused is probably the interstate commerce clause.

But regardless of the rationale, the key is to gain power, and power is directly correlated to the size of the government over which the Congressmen are exercising power, and the number of people dependent on Federal largesse and how dependent they are. As a result, the most commonly-used solutions to a problem are throwing money at existing programs, throwing money directly at people, creating new Federal agencies, expanding existing Federal agencies and adding new powers to existing Federal agencies. This bill has a little of each of these.

So, the faster the better and pass anything! Bummer, though, if you're either a taxpayer or resident in the next major terror target.


"For Congressmen, power has two requisites: a rationale for why Congress should be able to legislate on a particular matter, and the expenditure of money."

You're forgetting re-election. For most Congressmen there is no higher good. In my naivete I believe that few start out that way. But they rapid conflate their own good with the public good.

Posted by: Dave Schuler on December 8, 2004 08:05 AM

I didn't forget re-election. As I also said, "In order to wield power...a politician must be elected, and then re-elected frequently." Effectively, Congressmen are always campaigning - there's no time off for governing any more.

Posted by: Jeff on December 8, 2004 09:17 AM

Indeed you did. I stand corrected.

Posted by: Dave Schuler on December 8, 2004 12:46 PM
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Posted by jeff at December 12, 2004 12:00 AM

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