Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The new kids on the bridge

OK. Strap yourself in. Keep both hands inside the ride at all times. Your ears may pop periodically, from disbelief; this is perfectly normal. Ready? Here we go. The magic carpet rollercoaster journey of the 112th Congress of the United States of America is about to begin.

But first, a few tears, the handoff of a gavel, and four thousand words or so from our sponsor.

Today, when outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi handed GOP Rep. John Boehner of Ohio the oversize gavel that symbolized the transfer of power in the House — Keith Olbermann said it looked “like a keg on a stick” — Boehner could barely suppress the waterworks he’s known for.

Maybe it was justified this time. The Speaker’s chair had always been a goal for John Boehner; implicit in that dream is an appreciation for the power it conveys and the people that make that power possible. He’s fond of using the phrase “the People’s House.” As of today, the people will be in a position to hold Boehner, the 53rd Speaker of the House of Representatives, to that awesome pledge.

Him and the Republicans now firmly in Congress of that People’s House, 242-193. They’ve just held their hands high to take their oath of office, but the word’s already out on how the members of the shiny new Republican-controlled House of Representatives mean to do business. In its new hybrid flavor — two parts mainstream party Republicans, one part maverick Tea Party Republicans — the House GOP has announced that civics class begins on Thursday, a day after swearing-in and hall monitor assignments for the 87 GOP freshmen and women.

That’s the day when the United States Constitution, all 4,400 words of it (4,543 with the signatures), will be read aloud on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Needless to say, it’s not a day to cut class.

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The 112th’s new academic beat goes on, House Republicanism By the Book. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican congresswoman, plans to set up establishing weekly constitutional education courses for all incoming House members. And who might teach such a course? Well, well, folks, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has already graciously offered to step in to lecture the newest House GOP members on that very subject.

Bachmann, in full Vikings-association mode, described the courses as similar to "what the NFL does and what the baseball teams do."

"We're going to practice every week, if you will, our craft, which is studying and learning the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights," Bachmann said in an interview with the former journalist Lou Dobbs.

"Justice Scalia has graciously agreed to kick off our class the hour before we cast our first vote in Congress, we'll meet in the Capitol, we'll have a seminar on some segment of the Constitution, we'll have a speaker, we'll have questions and answers, we'll wrap our minds around this magnificent document," Bachmann said. "That'll set the tone for the week when we're in Washington."

Speaker Boehner, now Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the rest of the House leadership intend to press for a new House rule requiring that bills include “constitutional authority statement” explaining their constitutionality — in effect, to justify their own existences as ideas, let alone explain their value as legislative realities.

All this attention paid by Republicans to abiding by the Constitution sounds great, on paper (namely the paper their oath to uphold the Constitution is already written on). But with the avowed stop-Obama agenda of the Republicans in the House, and those in the Senate, any showy, theatrical pledges of allegiance to the Constitution deserve to be read in light that reveals the invisible ink they’re written in.

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It’s already getting ugly. Bachmann and Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York effectively joined the interparty battle over the United States’ $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, squaring off in a debate (with two other lawmakers) that aired Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"I think the Republicans have come in saying that they're gonna not raise the debt ceiling and they're gonna allow the full faith and credit of the American people go down the tubes," Weiner said. "It's their ship to run now, that's the responsibility. This is an adult game now and the risks are pretty high."

Toeing the party line, and adopting a position that will, sooner or later, be revealed for the utter bluff that it is, Bachmann said she intends to encourage her Minnesota constituents to sign an initiative that would prevent the increase in the debt ceiling — an increase that’s necessary to fund practically every aspect of the nation’s governmental, security and military infrastructure.

"Congress has had a big party the last two years, they couldn't spend enough money, and now they're standing back folding their arms saying 'oh,' taunting us to figure out how are you going to solve this big spending crisis," Bachmann said. "That's why it's so important for Democrats to now be a part of trying to figure out how we can be responsible."

"We are not looking to shut the government down, no one benefits," Bachmann said. "But at the same time we are not looking at wanting to continually raise the debt ceiling."

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York carried the fight to Cantor on Tuesday, in a story in Politico. Schumer, candid mensch that he is, asked if Cantor would ask the Republicans who want health care law repealed to refrain from using their congressional health insurance plans, arguably the best in the country.

“It seems unfair that house Republicans want to deprive middle-class Americans of the same health care as members of Congress but to keep it for themselves." Schumer said.

"Will Eric Cantor urge every Republican who is going to be for repeal to not take government health care themselves and to drop their existing health care?" Schumer asked, alluding to the case of GOP Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, who said last month that he would begin his congressional career with his own out-of-pocket health insurance.

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If you haven’t noticed by now, there‘s a by-hook-or-by-crook aspect to the Republican way of working in Congress, mostly, a willingness to pull the oldest and creakiest of procedural levers in order to get what they want, or to prevent the Democrats from getting what they want. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas said late today that the objective in the New House is to retire one federal program a week.

But not quite so damn fast. Some in Congress already have questions for the new kids on the block. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri asks why the Republicans won’t stop the practice of “secret holds,” in which any senator can hold up bills from passage and do so anonymously, with no public accounting to the Senate, or anyone else. And this desire, McCaskill noted this morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” comes amid the GOP’s newest bloviations for transparency and accountability. “Hogwash!” she said.

Hogwash it may be and probably is, but this is the way forward for the old new GOP, especially in the House. The long knives have been drawn for a while now; the backbenchers and Tea-drinking newcomers have been waiting to get into the battle by any means necessary, railing against the size of government without much thought as to what can be achieved because of the breadth of that government, threatening at every opportunity to overturn every advance of the Obama White House over the last two years. Now that they’re in office ... we’ll see.

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Olbermann’s been spelling it out there recently, at the end of “Countdown.” It’s a throwdown: “Mr. Boehner, where are the jobs?” If KO switches that to “Speaker Boehner,” it’ll just formalize what we’ve been led to believe, by Republicans, is coming with the changing of the guard in the House: some changes for the better, starting with the economy. We’ll see.

We’ve known for a while that there’s an existential dilemma to be addressed as the new Republican Party sorts out its multiple personality disorder. Now we’ll see if the House GOP can settle on one voice, sending one message, indivisible.

We know they’ve got the stamina to read the Constitution. Now we’ll see if they’ve got the courage to live it, to apply its powers and mercies to the millions of lives that are not their own.

We know they had the brains and the heart to win. Now we’ll see if they’ve got the guts to lead.

Image credits: Boehner, Bachmann: Associated Press. Weiner: CBS News. Schumer: and via Flckr. McCaskill: U.S. Senate (public domain).

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