While driving to work Friday morning, I was caught in the snarl created by Washington D.C.’s sadistic transportation managers who decided morning rush hour was the perfect time for construction on most routes into the city. As the line of cars started inching forward again, I was jolted from my daze by a god-awful psychic disturbance on the radio: a screeching and wheezing with the tone and pitch of mating fruit bats being ground into a garbage disposal. It was awful, the stuff of nightmares.
I pulled over to the side of the road and wept, certain that the end of days was nigh. It should’ve occurred to me then that this was not the sound and fury of the apocalypse but of bickering congressmen in their natural habitat--cable news.
It took the staccato efforts of the anchor, FOX News’s Bill Hemmer, to break into the melee between Congressmen Anthony Weiner and Peter King to clear up the disorientation. Hemmer’s efforts were Tourettes-like (Congressman! Con--Mr. Weiner! Congressman King--Hey! Wow!) and unsuccessful as Weiner and King shouted over one another, each accusing the other of moral cowardice and playing games with a vote to fund medical care for the first responders at the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center.
It was, perhaps, the most disturbing and entertaining catfight since Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston. I became all the more feverish to get out of the morning traffic so I could find video of the confrontation on the Internet. And when I did, I found something even more delicious: Weiner, on the floor of the House the night before, making even more of a clown of himself over the same issue.
Jugulars bulged. Eyes bugged. Fingers pointed. Fists pounded. There was even a kind of angry Rumpelstiltskin jig behind the podium. Weiner was castigating the Republicans for voting “against” legislation to provide funding to first responders who helped find and rescue survivors in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. His hysteria was complete, and when Peter King stood and asked Weiner to yield the floor so that he could give his side of the argument, Weiner shouted him down.
I actually think, in the midst of his frenzy, Weiner’s head popped clean off his spine and rolled like a bowling ball into the GOP aisle where it continued its bug-eyed shouts at King and his colleagues for “wrapping their arms” around each other. I’m not entirely sure what he meant by this phrase; it sounds awkward and presents some unhappy imagery. However, Weiner seemed to suggest that Republicans were turning their backs on the victims of 9/11 and trying to use “procedure” as a cover.
For his part, King accused Weiner and the Democrats of “moral cowardice” in setting up a vote for a bill that, though it had obvious bipartisan support, was sure to fail. This is because it (a) prohibited any amendments from Republicans and (b) required a supermajority (two-thirds) vote. It was clear that there were enough Republican votes to pass the legislation had it been given a normal vote, requiring a simple majority. That, however, would have required allowing the Republicans to have a say in the legislation--something the Democrats didn’t want.
It’s tough to blame the Republicans, as Weiner did, when the Democrats made it so difficult to get the votes needed to pass the legislation. The procedure the Democrats used is usually reserved for noncontroversial issues like naming yet another post office after another retiring congressman. The fact that they used such a procedure for a substantive vote shows that either the Democrats were playing games, seeking partisan advantage, or were afraid of having to vote on any amendments that the Republicans offered.
There is good reason to believe that the Democrats were indeed afraid of some of the amendments the Republicans might offer--first among them being a restriction on using any of the funds to provide medical care to responders who were illegal immigrants.
Democratic members of Congress are taking a beating on the campaign trail right now due to President Obama’s decision to sue the state of Arizona over its legislation requiring local police to enforce immigration law. Polls show that the public supports Arizona’s position. After cramming through a healthcare bill that was also opposed by the public, Democrats are not anxious to go to the polls in three months with the issue of illegal immigration also hanging around their necks.
Thus, they configured a parliamentary procedure that prohibited the introduction of the amendment denying funds to illegal immigrants who helped respond to 9/11 in order to bypass an unpopular vote.
Personally, I find the Republicans’ amendment appalling. Anybody who put his or her life on the line to save the lives of people trapped in the rubble and misery of the World Trade Center should be saluted--whether they be illegal immigrants or little green men from Mars.
What’s pathetic is how both the Democrats and Republicans attempted to exploit parliamentary rules to set up a vote, allegedly to help the first responders but in reality to put the other party at a political disadvantage.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one who laments the partisanship of Washington. I like it. The vigorous debate of ideas is healthy for the country, and that means the two opposing parties are often going to have differing views on legislation. Good. A monopoly on debate doesn’t foster a healthy free market of ideas.
A fight over legitimate ideological differences, though, is not what happened last week. Both Democrats and Republicans supported providing medical care to first responders who are now suffering pulmonary illness after breathing in the white dust and debris that covered the streets of New York on 9/11. No, they did not oppose one another’s ideas; by manipulating parliamentary procedure or seeking to introduce poisonous amendments, each side merely sought to undermine the other party in advance of the campaign.
It’s these kind of theatrics that have led to Congress having one of the lowest approval ratings on record. It may be good entertainment, but it’s terrible government. And Anthony Weiner’s stage-managed outrage is embarrassing.
It all kind of makes you long for the days of Jesse Ventura.