Monday, June 19, 2006
Election Year Politics, American Style
It is only June, but American politicians are already acting with an eye to November’s mid-term elections. Everyone knows that looming elections can cause funny behaviour in American politicians, but Presidential and Congressional conduct has been bizarre even by American standards this year. Take, for example, President Bush’s recent re-discovery of a favourite issue of social conservatives, a push to amend the U.S. constitution to ban same-sex marriages. The measure, which Republican leaders have periodically resurrected over the last few years whenever they feel the need to reinforce their standing with social conservatives, has no chance of gaining the necessary two-thirds majority in the House and Senate and then approval by three-quarters of the states. After a series of speeches to generate sufficient press coverage and mollify social conservatives, Republican leaders will surely abandon the issue until the next time they need to rally their base. Seeking to rally liberal opposition to the measure in his bid for the Democrats 2008 Presidential nomination, Senator Russ Feingold stormed theatrically out of a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting last month after scolding Committee chairman Arlen Specter. A similar issue that commands broader support is the proposed amendment, recently approved by the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, to protect the American flag from “desecration.” Even some members of the Democratic Party, who can usually be depended upon to oppose such silliness, have supported the idea, eager to shed the image of Democrats as out of touch with mainstream Americans. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein supported the measure, and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton recently co-sponsored a similar measure. Congressional debate regarding more vital issues has been no less circus-like. The issue that seems to elicit the most concern from voters centers on so-called “border security,” with most conservatives advocating harsh treatment for illegal immigrants and complicit American employers Many others support more moderate measures, like various amnesty plans that would provided paths to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. However, even these moderate plans have ridiculous elements to them, like President Bush’s call for stationing 6,000 National Guard troops along the U.S.-Mexican border, an absolutely useless - but not costless - gesture. The apex of this silliness came in April when the Senate voted to divert $2 billion from funding for operations in Iraq to programs concerned with halting illegal immigration. There are no coherent proposals on how to use this money, but in an election year, it is the gesture that counts. Iraq was the focus of perhaps the weirdest Congressional spectacle, recent non-binding votes in the House and Senate engineered by Republican leaders that rejected any sort of timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq. While these votes were relatively harmless wastes of time and money designed solely to embarrass Democrats, more troubling is the decision, yet again, to fund operations in Iraq “off-budget.” This accounting manoeuvre, which in effect allows Congress to write a massive check but to defer payment to a later date, is becoming habitual with Congress and highlights the growing budgetary problems the U.S. faces. Despite this extensive list of political absurdity, the idealist within me demands that I end with a tribute to a politician who appears to take the idea of public service somewhat seriously. Arlen Specter, the senior Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, has embarked on a lone, quixotic crusade to force the Bush administration to publicly explain their Orwellian domestic surveillance program. Americans seem largely unconcerned or unaware of this program – the Bush administration’s claim that is it necessary to “fight terrorism” has been, once again, sufficient to extinguish latent Congressional and press criticism. This endeavour is not earning him points with conservatives, but it is heart-warming to see at least one politician determined to serve the public interest, even in an election year.