Fred Hiatt has an essay in this morning’s Washington Post taking Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to task for his turn-around on the bipartisan Conrad-Gregg proposal to establish a bipartisan commission to recommend structural changes to the federal budget which, like the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission, would recommend a package of changes that can only be voted on as a whole, up or down. The idea behind such commissions is that they get around the self-interest of individual members of Congress by creating a proposal that is too big to fail.
BRAC has been a success. The problem before BRAC was this: As the military became more high-tech and less infantry-dependent, we did not need so many military installations and we needed the money for new weaponry. But, no member of Congress wants a base closed in their district because such bases provide jobs and economic opportunity. So, the BRAC committee makes one proposal, to close a whole bunch of bases, and Congress must vote up or down on the entire list. They can’t lobby to have their base reinstated. And, in any given Congress, there are enough people who do not lose bases to vote for the entire list, especially when the Pentagon brass insists that they support the BRAC proposals.
The budget commission was designed to clear a similar political hurdle. Democrats defend entitlement spending to the death. Republicans hate new taxes to the death. The outlines of a compromise are clear: The Democrats need to agree to some way to restrain entitlement spending and the GOP needs to agree to some types of tax increases. But, at any given moment, neither side has an interest in pursuing such a compromise. Sen. McConnell, who once supported the measure, now opposed it because his party has a clear interest in avoiding compromise right now, especially if that compromise entailed giving up their anti-tax credential. The tea party crowd would be on them in a heartbeat. Thus, this morning’s piece by Hiatt who chastises McConnell and others for their inability to put the public interest above their own partisan interest.
Of course, the Founders expected politicians to act out of self-interest, enlightened self-interest to be sure, but self-interest nonetheless. And, the Founders were never clear about where precisely that "light" in "enlightened" was to come from. As I mentioned last week, even those who are in the vanguard of defending science from "denialism" are themselves susceptible of avoiding courageous conclusions when those scientific conclusions do not comport well with upper-middle class, or Upper West Side, moral sensitivities. And, there are people who are pro-life so long as that does not involve supporting a health care reform that would save lives but would hand President Obama a victory. As has been evident for some time in our political culture, people do think they are entitled not only to their own opinions but to their own facts, and both sides in the ideological debate have their own networks and think tanks to establish those "facts." Fox and MSNBC appear to live in parallel universes.
This is why the President’s meeting last week with congressional Republicans was so valuable and why the President should schedule regular "Question Time" sessions with members of Congress. It is hard to sustain a false fact in the face of repeated questioning. Over time, the sessions would entail more give and take, no doubt, which would also be good. But, there is not now in our current system a viable means for saying, "That’s not true" Justice Samuel Alito’s mouthing of those words at the State of the Union notwithstanding.
There is, of course, a deeper cultural issue here and one to which Pope Benedict XVI has been calling attention for decades. We live in a culture where the existence of "truth" is questioned per se, where everything is reduced to subjectivity, where even intelligent people feel the need in conversation to state, "Well, it’s only my opinion but…." The trouble at the heart of America’s constitutional system is a problem at the heart of modernity, the inability to discern ways to discern truth and accord it a role in our political debates alongside interests. Those who invoke the Crusades and such are correct when they assert that the absence of ontology has sometimes been a blessing. The problem is that there is no such thing as the absence of ontology. The questions of truth, and value and meaning are endemic. Mr. Hiatt is on to something, but he is on to more than he realizes.