Forgive Me Father, For I Elected This Congress

The President's pared-down "Build Back Better" program is now the Inflation Reduction Act. Really. It was announced with a straight face. Not a sure thing, but likely to go into effect through a labyrinthine process called reconciliation, a procedure that no one understands, save Tim the Enchanter.

Forgive Me Father, For I Elected This Congress
A new truck built with that rare earth mineral...unobtainium.

The filibuster is the Walter Sobchak of Senate rules. It's time for it to go.

Hey, Mr. Texas Truck Buyer, can I interest you in a new F150, Ram or Silverado? Or how about a fancy new electric Hummer, Chevy Bolt, Tesla or Ford Lightning? Well, just leave a $1000 deposit and we'll keep in touch in a few months.

Why so long? In a word, the problem is chips. Semiconductors are the key to any modern, electronically drenched vehicle, and even more so for a modern electric one. And said chips are in short supply as China virtually owns the industry and are battling the same covid-related worker shortages and manufacturing issues as any industry in the US or anywhere else. Need I point out that they are also essential for all the high-tech hardware operated by the United States armed forces?

Depending on China to "keep-em-flying" seems as foolish as buying a cheap, Chinese AK-47 clone made by Norinco because you are convinced that you and your militia beer buddies will have defend our freedoms somehow, and then realizing the ammo you need also comes from behind the Great Wall. That will put a damper on this weekend's maneuvers/kegger.


So, when a bill to offer funding and incentives to revive the American chip industry was proposed, many Republicans were on board, especially in Texas since it looked like a good bet some manufacturing would come our way. Some Republicans didn't support it though, as they considered it a violation of the rules of the road in a free market economy. They obviously missed history class when government intervention on canals, railroads (Lincoln gave government land to the private sector for free), granting of monopolies, land for settlements, highways, airports, eminent domain for pipeline companies (some of them foreign...looking at you, Trans Canada and Keystone), even up to loans for everyone from steel companies in the early years to car companies in the recent past. These interventions helped industry and saved jobs. In short, good investments.

No photo description available.

And in regard to semiconductors, the great white whale of conservatism, Ronald Reagan, used government loans to create a chip consortium called Sematech. This came during an earlier period of alarm in the 80's over the fact that Asia was taking over the chip industry.

So, good deal, eh? Well, we are lucky it happened, just barely, because something else happened that week. A year ago, after checking his coal mining stock portfolio, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin was shocked, shocked to discover there was a budget deficit going on here, and decided he couldn't in good conscience vote for the President's original infrastructure plan. That plan also included a big investment in renewable energy and even healthcare, making the Affordable Healthcare program more, well, affordable for more folks.

"Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"

Thus began a year or so of dinner dates, flowers, candy and champagne courtesy of Chuck Schumer to try to woo the senator to return to the reservation. The dems cut and squeezed the original plan and finally, got big Joe to agree. Now, it was Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's turn to be shocked that Manchin was still, at least nominally, a Democrat, and he labeled it senatorial treachery. Just ignore that faint laughter that is echoing through the capitol hallways. It's only LBJ.

How its done.

But hell hath no fury like a politico scorned, and the chips bill barely survived the retribution of the GOP in the world's greatest deliberative body. The last time the House passed Chips Act funding, the vote was held almost entirely on party lines. In February, the House passed the America Competes Act, which included several provisions that were not included in the Senate bill, with 222 yay votes, and 210 nay votes. Only one Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, voted for the bill at the time.

So, The President's pared down "Build Back Better" program now sports a new name, apparently suggested by Don Draper or somebody, the Inflation Reduction Act. Really. It was announced with straight faces all around. It isn't a sure thing, but likely to go into effect through a labyrinthine process called reconciliation, a procedure that no one understands, save Tim the Enchanter.

So, now Mitch and the gang were truly PO'd and searched around for a piece of legislation to reject that benefited some group that no one likes. A bill that was clearly pork and would earn the applause of like-minded folks all over the country. A bill whose rejection would be a middle finger to all those greedy lobbyists looking for a place at the government trough and proof positive of our conservative bona fides. Ah! Got it! How about military veterans with cancer?

A group of vets discussing future chemo options.

Many vets who served in the various Middle Eastern operations, and even as far back as the Balkan conflict under President Clinton, have developed cancers due to their proximity to what are called burn pits. Those open-air pits would be filled with various types of trash, including medical waste, rubber, plastics and other hazardous materials. They would then be lit on fire, sometimes with the assistance of jet fuel. Like Agent Orange in the Viet Nam generation of vets, or those involved in the cleanup after 9/11, the long term effects of this exposure only became apparent years later.  

So a bill to provide VA money for treatment was voted on in June and passed overwhelmingly, 84-14. But due to a technicality, it needed to be voted on again last week. This time, it failed. 41 Republicans and one Democrat voted against the measure, blocking it from reaching the 60-vote threshold needed to bypass the filibuster rule. More on that bit of chicanery later. So what changed? Did these vets enjoy miraculous cures? Was something unrelated to vets added at the last minute? No, the bill was identical, but fell victim to the anger Republicans felt about Manchin switching sides on the Build Back...uh, sorry, the Inflation Reduction Act. Yes, it was a petty act of retribution.

And again, the bill hadn't changed since it passed originally in June, but some cited the budget as an excuse. Others worried that money might be diverted for purposes other than veterans health, you know, like using defense budget money for building a border wall or something. And, of course, in an attempt to cement his position as the most loathsome human on the planet, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Cancun) celebrated this victory over sick vets with a fist bump.

Yeah, we really owned the vets, er, the libs.

The bill will, of course, be brought up again and the shame heaped upon the guys in the above photo might be enough to overcome their pettiness, but who can tell?
I know, I am again tiresomely railing against a time-honored tradition in US politics, that tradition being childish tantrums, but seriously, is this the best we can do? I fear we are so partisan now, on both sides, that the only victories worth winning are those that defeat the other guys. The public good, the commonweal, is no longer the main criterion for good public policy.

Horton Hears a Congressman.

It seems that Congress in general has become its own ecosystem, its own parallel universe where the dynamics are only important to those there, not the rest of us on the outside. The arcane rules and maneuvers, victories and defeats have nothing to do with the substance of the issues they vote on, but only the won-lost record versus each other. Like the Whos in Whoville, they live on their own speck of dust on a clover flower called the District of Columbia. Their only driving impulse is re-election. And that supersedes everything else.

Insert your rep's name here...

They surface periodically for press conferences, McConnell or Schumer, McCarthy or Pelosi, and explain the importance of the latest atrocity they have committed. And we sit either scratching our heads or cheering them on because our "side" won this round. This time it was Republicans, but it was the so-called Dixiecrats in the 50's and 60's, Democrats during Reconstruction, or the "stop the steal" caucus after the election. Do we sit and contemplate whether some bill is in our best interest? Not anymore. If the other guy is for it, I'm ag'in it.

And, curiously, over the years John Barrasso's head has been growing out of McConnell's shoulder. 

The late, great Texas philosopher Molly Ivins once said, "We elect Democrats to give us stuff and Republicans so we don't have to pay for it." It was a humorous way to describe the two parties we actually needed for balance. Democrat's hearts bled for the poor and minorities, and Republicans reminded us to eat our peas before dessert. It's fine to help the needy, but pay the bills. I am actually pretty fiscally conservative and appreciate someone there who can wag the finger and remind us that when you get a raise, don't buy a boat, fix the roof.

But both parties are boat shopping now and the only difference is which one complains about it when they are out of power. By most people's reckoning, the GOP will probably take over next year and Democrats will suddenly discover the deficit as well. This, as tax cuts eat into the national income and the boats we buy will be new aircraft carriers. By the way, with those being built, we have more than all our allies and adversaries combined. And ours are bigger.

How long before we are back to this?

So, how did we get here? Congress has always been contentious and in some cases, downright violent. But we have reached a point where it seems impossible to get the most mundane things accomplished. The chips bill barely survived and only because some think their states will get a piece of the pie. I've traveled a long way in this piece to get to this. The impossibly high bar set by the filibuster makes things untenable for all but the most popular legislation. Obviously, this relic of the era of slavery needs to go. This steaming pile left on America's doorstep is the single greatest impediment to progress ever invented, and it needs to to be discarded. Both sides use it, and both will get steamrollered if it's gone, but that's why we have majorities and minorities.

Mr. Smith has his butt handed to him. 

It is not part of the US Constitution, becoming theoretically possible with a change of Senate rules only in 1806 and not used until 1837. Rarely used for much of the Senate's first two centuries, it was strengthened in the 1970s, and in recent years, the majority has preferred to avoid filibusters by moving to other business when a filibuster is threatened and attempts to achieve cloture (60 votes) have failed. As a result, in recent decades this has come to mean that all major legislation (apart from budgets) now requires a 60% majority to pass. In the closely divided congresses we have had in the last couple of decades, it ensures a virtual logjam and no matter how worthy the legislation, it is doomed to failure. There are lots of honestly stupid senate rules that stymie anything resembling good government, but this one is king.

In short, it's why we can't have nice things.

Roger Gray has toiled at the journalism trade since 1970 and his first radio news job at KTRH in Houston. Over those woefully misspent years, he has worked in radio, TV and written for magazines. He was twice elected President of the Texas Automobile Writers Association and was elected to the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. He covered the first Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, Oslo Accords in Israel and peace talks in Ireland. He interviewed writers, actors, politicians and every President from Ford to George W, and none of them remember him.
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.