In Washington, D.C., earlier this month, it seemed like the migrating Krewe of Louisianians was the only bunch in town that still knew how to have a good time.
Usually, Mardi Gras on the Potomac is appreciated even by those who don’t fully understand it. This year, the atmosphere seemed less welcoming in the post-inaugural week that was devoted to the deadly serious work of pulling the nation out of the deepening recession. With the changed environment came a raised standard of ethics, with tighter rules and attitudes designed to break with past decades of business as usual.
This sudden ethical conversion quickly clashed with D.C. Mardi Gras’ party as usual, with its internecine hobnobbing among elected officials, staff members, lobbyists, campaign contributors and, of course, lovely princesses. Even the benign Louisiana Alive! party, a mob scene open to anyone who could secure freely distributed wristbands from congressional offices, drew fire from ethicists deeply troubled that lobbyists underwrote the event and had little signs up proclaiming their sponsorships. Sounds like somebody needs a drink.
The prudes notwithstanding, the second-lining Louisiana crowd actually was right in step with action on Capitol Hill, where congressional Democrats were throwing a pre-Lenten spending bash—some would say orgy—of their own. No entreaty of “throw me something, mister” from state and local governments, federal agencies and interest groups seemed to go unheeded in the $819 billion stimulus package passed by the House and bound to be exceeded by the Senate.
The only party poopers were House Republicans, who voted unanimously against the package they were given little role in crafting—some would say shoveling—into law. Republicans, however, were no more inclusive when they held the White House and Congress.
GOP congressmen were not opposed to all of the deficit spending, since, given their recent record, they had little room to complain. Yet they made a valid point that the Democrats’ bacchanalian appropriations went well beyond stimulating the economy to bailing out deficit-ridden state governments, and beyond that to rewriting the nation’s social contract with a large segment of the people. All without a single hearing.
To raise an objection, to call for debate, was to border on treason. The most chilling sentence of the week in Congress came in a New York Times news story that read, “Democrats said the current economic crisis did not allow time for public hearings on the legislation.”
That calls to mind the insistence of the Bush White House last fall that its $700 billion banking bailout bill be passed before sundown lest the financial system collapse. We saw how well that worked out.
Whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, Washington has only so much credibility in managing the economy, especially when operating at warp speed. The president and the Democratic leadership easily could separate the true stimulus portions of the package—tax cuts and ready-to-go public works projects—from the creation of new agencies and broad policy changes that will take longer to implement and last longer still.
Take, for example, a far-reaching provision in the House bill that would grant Medicaid coverage to anyone receiving unemployment benefits. Democrats even rejected a Republican amendment for means testing.
To illustrate, take two employees at a company that does not offer health insurance. A manager making $75,000 is laid off and gets a Medicaid card, which is honored at any hospital or doctor’s office that sees Medicaid patients. His secretary, who makes $35,000, keeps her job but gets deathly ill and is crushed by medical bills she can’t pay. Fair?
Consider also this unemployment health care benefit expires in December 2010, by when it will be considered an entitlement, like other so-called temporary stimulus provisions that Congress will be loath to end.
Even some supporters of the stimulus’ Medicaid expansion are calling it the first step toward national health insurance. If that’s what America wants, so be it. But shouldn’t we discuss it first instead of just sliding into it? Unless the Senate slows things down, that’s where this is headed.
So while some in Washington who are out to save civilization in a hurry may look askance at the foolishness of Mardi Gras, one wonders which really is the city that care forgot.