Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Stupid is as Stupid Does

Okay, after about a month or more of silence (mostly work related), I’m back to offer more of my left wing propaganda. Well not really, but at least I’m back to having a few minutes to actually contribute to this little space on the internets rather than just being a spectator. With that I will turn my attention to what I see as two of the stupidest things that this Congress could possibly do, namely, enact a “Flag Burning” Amendment to the Constitution, and abdicating even more of its power to the executive branch by adopting a “line-item veto.”

UPDATE 6/28: Well, thankfully I was wrong about a couple of things: First, we didn't get FOUR days of debate over the flag burning amendment, mostly, it appears, due to the fact that NO Senators could be found to use floor time to bloviate either for or against the proposal. Second, the amendment failed to get the 67 votes required to pass and be sent to the states for ratification. For now, it seems that cooler heads have prevailed. Me thinks that while this isn't the last we've heard of this issue, it is the end for at least another couple of years, or until that supposed epidemic of flag burning picks up again.

First things first, with respect to the Flag Burning Amendment, I really don’t know where to start. The whole thing is, in my opinion, so stupid that it hardly merits the attention of anyone with half a brain, yet we’re going to be blessed with FOUR, count them, FOUR days of debate in the United States Senate over this monstrosity. Look, this is simple; flag burning is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, period, and end of discussion. The fact that it took not one, but two, Supreme Court cases to establish this is an embarrassment in and of itself, there is no need to compound the stupidity. Does this mean that flag burning is a “good” idea, politically persuasive, or even something that I support? No, of course it is none of those things. That, however, is 100% beside the point. The fact that I wouldn’t personally burn a flag or support anyone who does, doesn’t mean that it is somehow less of a protected expression of discontent with the government. Flag burning, as personally abhorrent as I may find it, is quintessential political speech, precisely the type of expression and activity that the First Amendment was designed and intended to protect. I may not find it persuasive, dignified, enjoyable, or necessary, but fortunately that is not the standard, unless you are a member of Congress. Previous attempts to enact this abomination, thankfully, were stopped by the august members of the Senate, but now, with mid-term elections quickly approaching, it appears that even some of them have lost their nerve and will jump ship in favor of what is nothing more than politically expedient. Ah, blatant politics with the Constitution before an election, my favorite time of year. Anyway, I could go with this diatribe, but I’m running out of child friendly negative words to use when describing this amendment. I’d love to hear from people who support this idea, keeping in mind that there are lots of things that we personally don’t like or find offensive, but nevertheless demand the greatest protection under the First Amendment. Thus, I’m hoping to prevent the comments along the line of “flag burning is wrong and an insult to out soldiers and veterans.” True, it may well be all of that and much worse, but it is still an expression of political opposition, which is precisely what those brave men and women have died to protect. They may not like everything that is said or done under the guise of freedom of expression, but they fought valiantly to protect the abstract right and that needs to be respected and endured. Such an amendment only, in my opinion, erodes their sacrifice and diminishes their significant accomplishments. I’ll stop here and look forward to my tongue lashing in the comments.

My second comment is a bit more obscure and probably won’t be the subject to much discussion given what I’ve said above, but it is equally as stupid and yet, it seems, that few, if any, members of Congress recognize that fact. I’ve given you all the history of this before so I won’t repeat all of that. Instead I’ll simply reproduce the last few paragraphs which bear repeating now that it appears this idea will actually come to a vote.

Basically I have three objections to the line-item veto in whatever form it takes. First, it disrupts the balance of power established by the Constitution and it erodes Congress’s constitutional authority over the Treasury and appropriations process. Second, it destroys any incentive for change within the Congress, by shifting the burden and the political blame to the President. Finally, it won’t reduce spending.

Let me elaborate a bit. The balance of power argument is simple, Congress, not the President controls the purse. Now this is not to say that the President plays no role, for he clearly does. He proposes an annual budget, and he reserves the right to veto legislation that he does not like, subject of course to Congressional override. To allow the President, any President, to item-by-item object to provisions significantly weakens Congress’s role in the process, especially if a President is politically powerful. It’s one thing to include outsiders, including the administration in the law making process, there are excellent reasons for doing so, and the President is an active required participant in every law that is passed, but currently inclusion is at the will of Congress. If Congress doesn’t want to include the President until presentment it is under no obligation to do so. Line-item veto will inject the President into every one of the 12 appropriations bills that go through Congress. If every member has to clear or pre-approve every spending request with Administration officials to ensure that it will not be vetoed, then the process will drag to a screeching halt and never be completed. Congress needs to have the ability to act independently and be independently politically accountable for its actions. If the President doesn’t like provisions in a bill he already has a constitutionally approved remedy, he can veto the bill and send it back. Line-item veto requires Congress in essence to pass appropriations laws twice, once as a package and then again on a line-by-line basis after the President has exercised his power.

Second, there are already ways internally that Congress can address some of the ills of the appropriations process. Just for example, it could strengthen the procedural protections of the Budget Resolution, making it harder to waive it’s application. Second, it could self-impose more transparency on the process by eliminating the ability of Members to insert provisions in conference reports. It could make conference reports amendable for appropriations purposes only, thus allowing full votes on earmarks that are last minute insertions. It could self impose earmark limits, say 1 per member per year or total cost not to exceed 1 million per member per year, this would force members to choose more wisely the projects that they were going to expend political capital on and limits the increase in discretionary spending to $535 million per year, a paltry sum in a 2.4 trillion dollar budget. These are only a few ideas off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are many others. Point is, none of these will happen if the line-item veto passes, as Congress will look to the President to fix the problem after the fact and the politics and finger-pointing will destroy what little incentive there is to actually fix the problem.

Finally, reducing spending; yeah, right. Anyone who seriously thinks that this will accomplish that is seriously deluding themselves. Congressmen and 1/3 of the Senate are up for re-election every time the President is, so every 4 years or so, you can pretty much guarantee there wouldn’t be any line-item vetoes, and if there were, Congress would simply override them in order to protect their jobs. No President is going to cut funding in an area where he/she will eventually have to campaign in, and no member is going to stand by while funding is cut, thereby giving an opponent an easy election year issue. I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. True the appropriations process is horribly broken, but the line-item veto isn’t the solution.


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