The bipartisanship bust

It didn't take long after Sept. 11 for the Republican right in Congress to return to the business-as-usual of fattening the rich.

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Over the past month, an old cliché signifying cooperation between the two parties in Washington briefly returned to vogue, as ideological and political rivalries were supposedly set aside to confront a national crisis in unity. But that “bi” word is far less descriptive of current political reality than another term that sounds exactly the same and means something quite different.

“Buy-partisanship” is a more apt homonym for the conduct and philosophy of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives these days. It is the way business has always been done in Congress, of course, where wealthy interest groups are forever trying to “buy” partisan favors to advance their own narrow agenda. But the purchasing of GOP partisans by corporate interests in recent weeks appears especially crass when contrasted with the heroism and sacrifice endured by ordinary patriotic Americans.

The most striking example of this syndrome is the airline bailout legislation pushed through by the Democratic and Republican leaders, with little debate, in order to preserve a vital industry from failure. Little was heard from Republicans about the all-important libertarian free-market principles so blatantly violated by the bailout — presumably because they were too busy calculating the future campaign contributions that will be forthcoming from grateful airline executives. Perhaps in order to ensure that gratitude, the GOP leaders in the House appended to the bill a measure that expressly permitted those overpaid corporate managers to continue receiving their inflated salaries and perks, courtesy of American taxpayers.

Meanwhile, Democrats worried about the thousands of workers laid off by the airlines and sought some legislative relief for them as well in the bailout bill. Assured by Speaker Dennis Hastert that quick “bipartisan” cooperation would bear fruit later for those workers, the Democratic leadership finally went along with a version that left out labor in favor of management and shareholders.

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That decision to trust Hastert turned out, quite predictably, to have been a grave error. Within days, the actual bosses of the Republican House majority, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, publicly reneged on their puppet speaker’s commitment. As Armey put it in his usual blustering way, “The model of thought that says we need to go out and extend unemployment benefits and health insurance benefits and so forth is not, I think, one that is commensurate with the American spirit here.” (No doubt the tough-talking Texan meant the American Airlines “spirit,” as meanly expressed in a corporate announcement that its 20,000 laid-off employees will receive no severance pay.)

So much for bipartisanship, not to mention “shared sacrifice,” “united we stand” and all the other happy pap we’ve been hearing since Sept. 11. Now we know that those with corporate and political power can escape the sacrifices that everyone else is expected to accept with a sad smile.

This same sickening pattern, on an even larger scale, is evident in what Republicans propose to stimulate the economy. Again, wealthy individuals and corporate managers are sidling up to the public trough, all the while waving flags and sending sincere condolences to the bereaved and unemployed. They feel no shame in misusing one of the worst emergencies the country has ever faced as an excuse for their own further enrichment.

That wasn’t the mood during the first two weeks following the terrorist attacks, when leaders of both parties held a series of meetings in an effort to work out a joint approach to the country’s sudden economic crisis. Democrats set aside such long-standing goals as an increase in the minimum wage, while Republicans gave up, for the time being, on their cherished cut in the capital gains tax. The effort to work together was doomed almost from the beginning, however, because of pressure from right-wing Republicans on behalf of their perennial panacea — cutting taxes for their friends.

So now the president and his partisan colleagues in Congress want to accelerate the tax cuts they passed earlier this year, providing hundreds of millions in additional benefits to the very richest people in the country. They also want to eliminate the corporate minimum tax, which ensured that companies would no longer be able to use shelters and scams to avoid paying any income taxes, at a cost to the Treasury of up to $50 billion over the coming decade.

The only concession won by the Democrats so far is a promise by the president to extend this year’s tax rebates to some lower-income families — an idea that would provide real demand in the economy, though hardly enough to make a difference. It’s a tiny drip compared with the torrent flowing upward, into the pockets of those who need help the least. The bulk of the Republican proposal is pure profit for big campaign donors and corporate lobbyists.

What George W. Bush may not realize yet is that his present popularity crystallized at a moment when the American atmosphere turned truly bipartisan and patriotic. His cronies in Congress have seized upon that feeling to reach into the Treasury with both hands, while scorning those who are really suffering. It is a shameful example of serving self rather than country that citizens should remember long after the current crisis passes.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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