Friday, July 29, 2011

A short visit to the heart of the beast

I paid a visit to the gallery of the US House of Representatives Wednesday evening.  Congress was debating a GOP-tabled bill to defund the Endangered Species Act. You're probably wondering what wild animals have to do with the debt ceiling crisis.

Breaking protocol to address the CSPAN television audience, a Democratic Congresswoman asked: "Why are the Republicans forcing us to spend the next 140 hours to debate a pointless and very destructive interior bill at this time? The country is at imminent risk of default on the debt because of the intransigence of Republicans."

The debate that followed was quite astounding. The Republicans were looking for ways to defund parks, forests, and clean water. A Democratic Congresswomen said, "Republicans want to destroy the program that has protected the bald eagle -- the symbol of our great country!" At first it appeared as if the Republicans were willing to cut anything at any long-term cost to reduce the deficit. That's what I thought until the last twenty minutes of my visit. The truth is more disturbing.

The Republicans tabled amendment after amendment intended to rescind funding from federal programs intended to protect species, municipal water supplies, and ecosystems. Anything that wasn’t about fighting forest-fires was fair game. The Democrats were fighting back.

A GOP instigated House rule stipulates that any increase in the budget in one area requires a specified budget cut somewhere else. Members of Congress trying to fund clean water for towns in Oregon or support wetland preservation in Florida have to propose an equal cut in funding for another program. In reply to a Congresswoman from Hawaii, a Congressman from Idaho said, “As much as I would like to fund preservation of your beautiful tropical ecosystem in Kawaii [annual rainfall 180 inches], I believe the best way to save forests is to preserve the budget for fighting forest-fires.”

After a long while, a Republican Congressman from Kansas stood up to propose an amendment to increase spending. I leaned forward in my gallery seat. I wanted to catch every word of this.

The GOP Congressman's argument was the best way to fight forest fires is to reduce opportunities for them to happen. He said that taxpayers can save having to pay for fighting forest fires by reducing the size of the forests. The phrase he used to describe his proposal was “forest restoration” (i.e. logging). This Republican congressman wanted to increase spending to pay corporations to cut down the forests.

Republicans claim the United States is going broke. Yet they are not content to sell-off  America's assets for peanuts, they use tax dollars to pay their friends to take them.  

It doubt the ridiculous bill they were debating has any chance of become law during this Congress. But the spectacle suggested to me that the difference between Republicans and Democrats has never been starker. A widening gap of sensibility between parties coincides with a presidency that downplays differences in the never-ending pursuit of “bipartisanship."  Something is deeply amiss.

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