February 3, 2010

The Insanity of the Center

In the past week, there has been a lot of renewed discussion of bipartisanship, the need to work together, and the need to govern across the aisle. But this is not an easy thing and, in fact, if you start to look at actual budgets and the political process, it looks like the “political center” is as nutty as ever.

First off, since we at elephantjournal.com have a vested interest in the well-being of the environment as a whole, let’s look at what’s coming down the pike in terms of legislation dealing with greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, “cap and trade” has (strangely) become a dirty word in political circles. I happen to love cap and trade, even though my more liberal friends tell me that it’s a giveaway to the financial and energy industries. But this is the reason why I love it; I think it actually has selling power and the carbon market could be an engine for green innovation. However, in the past year, cap and trade has been branded “big tax on energy.” Which is too bad. As a result, as Mother Jones is reporting, Senate Democrats are now considering a “Plan B” on energy legislation, which is basically all the giveaway, none of the cap.

The only hope on this front is that the Obama administration uses the EPA to place a cap on greenhouse gases. This is a move that Obama has signaled support for. But here’s the insanity: this would actually be a much more onerous “tax” on energy industries, without the ability to trade carbon credits, without the initial carbon allotments, without the subsequent market for carbon trading… In other words, all the things that the powers that be ought to love about cap and trade will likely be lost. And this is because the political right has branded cap and trade as something much worse than it is. In effect, the center loses out. Either the right wins and nothing gets done, or the left wins with the EPA shouldering the burden of capping greenhouse gases.

Ever wonder why health care reform is nearly dead (or maybe not quite)? I know. That’s an easy one. But consider it for a minute. First of all, as Nancy Pelosi explains quite succinctly, via Ezra Klein, the core of the health care bill (the part that everybody agrees needs to be fixed), namely, that individuals will no longer be denied insurance or denied care because of pre-existing conditions or recision, this simply cannot be fixed without a complete overhaul of the system:

Some people have suggested that we should do [those insurance reforms] freestanding. But it’s important to note the following: You can’t do that freestanding unless you have the basic underpinnings of a bill, because otherwise you’re making a statement, but you’re not making a difference in anyone’s life because it’s not tied to the accountability of the insurance companies. You could get all of those things — insurance companies will price it out of everybody’s range. So they would be factors for increased costs and premiums, rather than reforms of the insurance industry, unless they go along with a bill that is underlying that we hope that we will be able to pass before too long.

Right. So why can’t we get major reform passed through the congress? (BTW, the GOP health care “reform” bill really does nothing, says CBO.) As everyone knows, it’s the filibuster, stupid. But ever wonder what makes the filibuster such a powerful threat? Wait for it. Because it’s politically easier to vote against ending debate than it is to vote for the actual bill. The reality is that in the past year there have been a number of votes that were threatened with filibuster, reached the floor on party-line votes, and then, miraculously, passed with overwhelming majorities! This means that Republicans are voting against submitting a bill to vote, and then voting for the bill! This comes from James Fallows, again via Ezra Klein:

In the past, if you opposed a bill getting to a vote on the floor, typically (admittedly not always) you would also oppose it IN the vote on the floor. That was the only reason to oppose it getting to the floor – because you opposed it! The answer, I’ve been told several times (by Democratic staffers, who don’t seem at all surprised or perturbed), is that a lot of Republicans don’t want to be on record as voting against a bill they believe the public or their constituents favor. Huh? Trying to kill it without a vote is somehow safe politically, but voting against it on final passage is not? Now that, I submit, is an anomaly the blame for which we can lay at the feet of the much-diminished news media, and the shortcomings of the Senate Democrats.

That last line is one reason why I think this quote should be reposted, retweeted, and retold as many times as possible. This is nothing short of insane.

Finally, you might wonder why we should wring our hands about all this. Well, the fact is that–despite what your activist friends tell you–ever since Henry Clay, the US government has governed from the center, through compromise, bipartisanship, whatever you want to call it. If we lose the center, we lose the capacity to govern effectively. And if that happens, we may all get a taste of what’s going on in Colorado Springs, where “small government” is now a reality. And that, my friends, is not pretty.

It’s also pretty disturbing when the word on the street in Davos last week was that the United States is no longer the standard-bearer of economic and governmental stability. When foreign governmental allies and investors start describing the United States as “politically instable” (as Tom Friedman reports), we’ve got issues.

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