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‘Tis the season…

December 20, 2010

…where contentious House and Senate sessions are crammed into a tight schedule to get all the legislative work done that should either have been done much earlier or left for the new Congress to take on. But this is how things are, and not just on the Hill: sometimes it’s only mercilessly passing time that makes things happen, for better or worse.

The French Cowboy thinks that the complaints, raised by some Republican members of Congress, about Harry Reid allegedly not respecting the importance of Christmas by keeping Senators in DC for so long are rather silly. Very few people with a job have the luxury to spend the week before Christmas away from work, and members of Congress are not the only ones whose work separates them geographically from their families. Maybe the complaints weren’t serious but were attempts to pressure Monsieur Reid into leaving the lame duck lame. If so, then they were cynical, voter-repelling and ineffective attempts. There are good arguments to be made against Congress going into hyperactive mode as its life cycle ends, suggesting that Reid is disrespectful of a Christian holiday — and that Republican members are lazy — is not one of them.

The best argument against Congress’s current activities is, of course, that, in November, the world’s largest deliberative body in its current composition has received what amounts to a vote of no confidence. Americans clearly would like to see a change of personnel in both chambers sooner rather than later. But there’s no law against a lame duck refusing to play dead. You can argue against the morality of trampling on voters’ expressed wishes in this fashion, but not its legality. It’s Republicans’ job to fight bad legislation getting hoisted on America in the eleventh hour, inside and outside of Congress. They should also make sure that voters don’t forget how many Democrats like to go rogue when (still) in power.

Which brings me to the extension of the Bush tax cuts — a tough fight, admittedly. But I believe that Republicans could have done better. Their case was clear and compelling: 1. It’s not a tax cut, it’s a not-raising of taxes, 2. Just because taxes had been higher once, it doesn’t mean that the money earned (even by “the rich”) is technically the government’s, and 3. We cannot solve the debt problem by raising taxes, we must cut spending.

But Republicans undermined their own rationale by voting for the tax-cut extension and simultaneously allowing for a slew of spending programmes, the ethanol subsidy being the most infamous because archetypal of senseless public spending that does no visible good but a lot of invisible harm.

Even among Democrats there were very few who insisted on their point of view: “the rich” must pay “their fair share” because the government’s been spending like a drunken sailor and intends to continue to do so. Republicans didn’t succeed in exposing this class-warfare philosophy held by people like Representative Weiner. Most Democrats had given up on the Bush tax cut fight and passed on to smuggling other types of taxes and/or spending measures into the bill.

The French Cowboy watched Paul Ryan doing a terrific job in checking all the boxes of the Republicans’ chain of arguments on Fox News lately. But he “debated” a friendly and calm Van Hollen who obviously had conceded on all those points already, but spoke of the freshly introduced estate tax as if it had always existed and wasn’t his bone of contention anyway, but that of some other people whom he happened to know. With Van Hollen refusing to enter the ring, Ryan was left to shadow boxing.

I think this episode shows how easy it should have been for Republicans to achieve a better deal. It looked like they were surprised how easy it was to win the tax-cut extension and then they were unprepared to fend off the variety of new taxes and spending measures that quickly followed. The Dems have outwitted Republicans on the tax deal.

On the bright side, Americans seem to be content with the compromise. Although I think that’s mostly because they, too, were mostly focused on the tax-cut extension and aren’t aware of what else the legislative bundle contains. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind that, with all the clarity of the November election results, this still is the 111th Congress. The 112th is the one we have been waiting for.

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