America's rough week: Terminal dysfunction, bad legislating and all that torture

Congress passes a thoroughly opaque spending bill while the same old debate about torture erodes our moral center

Published December 15, 2014 4:12PM (EST)

Dick Cheney, Barack Obama                  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Photo montage by Salon)
Dick Cheney, Barack Obama (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Photo montage by Salon)

Last Tuesday, Jonathan Gruber sat sheepishly before the House Oversight Committee as lawmakers from both parties lambasted him for some impolitic comments he’d made about the the Affordable Care Act. A consultant to the Obama administration during the drafting of the law, Gruber had said of the law's passage that a “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter, or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to get the thing to pass.” Members of the committee took turns flensing him for this remark.

“You said in these video comments that, essentially, you had to deceive in order to get this passed,” Rep. Darrell Issa said to Gruber. “If deception was part of the process by your own statements, why should we believe your analysis?” “I think it's horrific,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, “that you participated in some level on obscuring the truth from the American people in order to pass this bill.” Democrats took pains to point out that the law was debated for months and months in the open, but the overall tone of the hearing was unmistakable: Legislation, especially huge pieces of legislation like the ACA, should be passed in a way that is open and transparent so that the public can fully understand what Congress intends to do with taxpayer money.

Two days later, the House passed the $1.1 trillion “Cromnibus” spending bill in a late-night vote after tacking on several unrelated policy riders at the last minute that made sweeping changes to campaign finance laws and financial regulations. (Both Issa and McHenry voted in favor of passage.)

I point this out not simply for the hypocrisy of it, but to make a broader point: Last week was really just terrible for American democracy.

Let’s start with the Cromnibus. Politically, one could argue that it was the best outcome the Democrats could hope for; if they’d blocked it and pushed the spending fight into the next Congress (with Republicans in control of both chamber) then they’d almost certainly be stuck fighting a more conservative version of the legislation. When choosing between shit sandwiches, always go for the one with more bread.

In the end, though, it’s still a sandwich full of shit. What the Cromnibus represented was the culmination of John Boehner’s successful strategy to spend most of this session of Congress doing absolutely nothing – “an era of impoverished legislation,” as the Washington Post put it. And since Republicans were in the driver’s seat and everyone’s backs were up against the wall, the hastily cobbled-together spending legislation ended up being a sloppy grab bag of Republican-friendly policy initiatives that both Republicans and Democrats wanted to push through with minimal scrutiny or debate.

The policy rider that got the most attention, owing to the determined efforts of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, was a bit of legislation that repeals a key portion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that prohibits banks from using taxpayer-backed funds to engage in high-risk derivatives trading – you know, the business at the center of the 2008 financial crisis. That bit of legislation was literally drafted by lobbyists for Citigroup, and one of its chief proponents, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, was personally lobbying lawmakers to get the Cromnibus passed. This rider was agreed upon by Republicans and Democrats in both houses, it represented a huge change to existing legislation that would benefit one specific (and very powerful) interest group, and Congress had every intention of enacting it without a moment’s deliberation.

The same applied for the “small provision” written into the Cromnibus that allows for a massive increase in the amount of money donors can shovel toward party committees. Congress voted to dramatically boost the political influence of wealthy donors, and there’s an excellent chance that you wouldn’t have heard about it but for the timely outcry from a few legislators.

And those were just the two most controversial provisions. As David Dayen points out, the list of terrible policy changes approved with zero debate include cuts to pension benefits, cuts to Pell grants, windfalls for health insurers, loosened restrictions on the NSA, and weakened EPA regulations. The most flagrantly anti-Democratic provision of the bill is the rider overturning Washington, D.C.’s legalization of marijuana. Residents of D.C. voted in favor of legalization, but because D.C. is essentially a vassal state of the federal government, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., was able to attach language to the Cromnibus overriding that expression of the people’s will.

This is bad legislating, done in the most opaque manner possible, and it predictably produced bad legislation. And it was backed by members of both parties in Congress and by the White House.

And if that stinker of a bill wasn’t enough, we also had to grapple with the realities laid bare by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the abuses that occurred within the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. I and others have made the argument that the report represents at least some measure of accountability (the tiniest sliver possible) for a years-long campaign of torture conducted in the name of the American people, and that we are better than the actions described in that document.

But the ugly truth of it is that, as shocking as the Senate report is, it’s not completely out of step with American history. Republicans, conservative pundits and huge segments of the American populace remain convinced that the torture the U.S. inflicted in prosecuting the war on terror was not only justified to keep the country safe after 9/11, but worth repeating at some point in the future. Meanwhile, everyone involved in creating and administering the program is in no danger of any sort of repercussion, while the CIA gets by on weak-tea denunciations of its own conduct.

Bad legislation hastily crafted in the dark after months of dysfunction, anti-democratic initiatives approved in secret that benefit moneyed interests at the expense of taxpayers, reliving one of the country’s most flagrant lapses in moral conduct … it was a rough week for the American experiment.

By Simon Maloy

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