Blow, Kristof and Collins

In “Cliff After Cliff” Mr. Blow says not only is the era of grand bargains over, but the era of basic governance is screeching to a halt.  Mr. Kristof is in Beijing.  In “Cheap Meth! Cheap Guns! Click Here.” he says on the Internet in China, you can easily purchase meth, cocaine and other drugs, but news media sites are blocked. That’s some backward policy.  Ms. Collins has a question in “Looking Forward:”  Wasn’t the 112th Congress something else? Well, don’t worry, people. The next one won’t entirely be more of the same.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

We have a deal. But please hold your applause, indefinitely.

We momentarily went over the fiscal cliff but clawed our way back up the rock face. Unfortunately, we are most likely in store for a never-ending series of cliffs for our economy, our government and indeed our country. Soon we’ll have to deal with the sequester, a debt-ceiling extension and possibly a budget, all of which hold the specter of revisiting the unresolvable conflicts and intransigence of the fiscal cliff. Imagine an M. C. Escher drawing of cliffs.

Be clear: there is no reason to celebrate. This is a mournful moment. We — and by we I mean Congress, and by Congress I mean the Republicans in Congress — have again demonstrated just how broken and paralyzed our government has become, how beholden to hostage-takers, how vulnerable to extremism.

A fiscal cliff deal was cut at the last possible minute, covering a minimal number of issues. It was far from perfect and barely palatable. It was a compromise, and compromises are inherently imperfect. No one likes the whole of it, but they balance the bad parts against the good and see beyond dissension.

As the fiscal cliff votes came down to the wire, many repeated the aphorism: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But sadly, we are beyond even that. Now the perfunctory has become the victim of the grueling.

The American people suffered through another moment of manufactured suspense brought on by political malpractice. There was no grand bargain. There was only a begrudging acquiescence.

Not only is the era of grand bargains “over,” as Jennifer Steinhauer wrote in The Times on Tuesday, I believe that the era of basic governance is screeching to a halt.

As Steinhauer pointed out in September:

“The 112th Congress is set to enter the Congressional record books as the least productive body in a generation, passing a mere 173 public laws as of last month. That was well below the 906 enacted from January 1947 through December 1948 by the body President Harry S. Truman referred to as the ‘do-nothing’ Congress, and far fewer than even a single session of many prior Congresses.”

That’s an abominable shame. The one function of a lawmaker is to make laws. They can no longer seem to do that in any meaningful way.

It is no wonder that Gallup finds Congress’s approval rating stuck in the teens.

We have moved from a type of governance where the art of the compromise was invaluable to one where adherence to ridiculous pledges is inviolable. (By approving this fiscal cliff deal, many Republicans voted to broadly raise taxes for the first time in decades and many are still grousing about it.)

The change has taken place primarily among Republicans, who have struggled to balance the responsibilities and prerogatives of minority-party status with the anxiety of losing their long-held power at the expense of the growing influence of minority and historically marginalized constituencies like women and gays.

Smaller federal government! Out-of-control federal spending! States’ rights! Defense of Marriage! Defund Planned Parenthood! There is an individual argument (merit not withstanding) to be made about each of these issues in its own right. But only a person who is willfully blind or hopelessly ignorant would not acknowledge the common thread that runs through them: the fear of a future in which income, wealth and cultural inequalities dissipate and traditional power structures dissolve.

The country’s debt and solvency are real and legitimate concerns, but the true crux of the friction lies in the implicit arguments about the cause of our troubles. It is the tired and worn takers vs. makers argument just slathered in lipstick — Resistance Red, I suppose.

And since some of these Republicans are from safely gerrymandered districts, they have little to lose and something to gain by holding the line even if it continually pushes the country to the brink.

House Republicans like to say that Americans voted for a divided government and this gridlock is what becomes it. But that’s not entirely correct. As The Economist pointed out in November:

“The Democrats won 50.6% of the votes for president, to 47.8% for the Republicans; 53.6% of the votes for the Senate, to 42.9% for the Republicans; and… 49% of the votes for the House, to 48.2% for the Republicans (some ballots are still being counted). That’s not a vote for divided government. It’s a clean sweep.”

Republicans control the House in part because of the geography of ideology — cities tend to have high concentrations of Democrats and rural areas have high concentrations of Republicans — and because of the way district lines were redrawn, in many cases by Republican-led state legislatures.

So we will be soon be pushed back into a state of panic because Republican members of Congress demand a state of paralysis.

We are stuck with this reckless, whining and ultimately dangerous gaggle of wounded spirits. As many people can attest, an animal is often at its most dangerous when it’s sick, wounded or afraid. Brace yourselves.

Next up is Mr. Kristof:

Want to buy illegal drugs in China? No problem — just go to the wild and woolly Internet here and order a $50 or $100 package of methamphetamines, ecstasy or cocaine. It’ll be delivered to your door within hours!

“Our company has delivery stations in every part of China,” boasts one Chinese-language Web site, with photos of illegal narcotics it sells. “We offer 24-hour delivery service to your door, and we have long-term and consistent supplies. If you just make one phone call, we’ll deliver to your hands in one to five hours.”

Another Chinese Web site offers meth wholesale for $19,700 a kilo, or deliveries to your door of smaller quantities in hundreds of cities around China. Even in remote Anhui Province, it delivers drugs in 21 different cities.

All this is completely illegal in China, where narcotics traffickers are routinely executed. But it doesn’t seem to be a top government priority, because these Web sites aren’t even closed down or blocked. Tens of thousands of censors delete references to human rights, but they ignore countless Chinese Web sites peddling drugs, guns or prostitutes.

Doesn’t it seem odd that China blocks Facebook, YouTube and The New York Times but shrugs at, say, guns?

Chinese law tightly restricts gun ownership, but it takes just a few minutes of Chinese-language searching on the Internet to find commercial sites selling, say, an illegal Springfield XD-9 9 millimeter handgun for $1,120. Or a Type 54 semiautomatic Chinese military handgun for $640, or rifles or many more. And that’s not all.

“For prices of silencers, contact our customer service department,” the Web site advises.

(American gun enthusiasts often argue that we need firearms to protect ourselves from government. But the situation in China suggests that what autocrats actually fear isn’t so much people with guns as citizens armed with information and social media accounts.)

In fairness, China is far more sane than the United States about firearms. At least the Chinese authorities don’t tolerate gun stores openly selling assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. I invite Chinese journalists to write about the fecklessness of American politicians who make no serious effort to reduce the toll of guns in the United States.

If your interests run in more prurient directions, the Internet here is also chockablock with sex and prostitution. GHB, better known as the date-rape drug, is widely sold with chilling descriptions.

“If she drinks this, she’ll be yours,” promises one Internet seller, describing it as “obedience liquid.” Another says: “Only two pills will send her into a deep sleep, so that however you move her she won’t wake up. Afterward, she’ll have no memory.”

The upshot is that most Chinese won’t be able to access this column, but can easily go to the Web to purchase firearms or narcotics.

From afar, Westerners sometimes perceive China as rigidly controlled, but up close it sometimes seems the opposite. There are rules, but often they are loosely enforced, or negotiable.

Yet the authorities choose priority areas where they do keep the pressure on, and one is curbing information that might cause political instability. So the authorities block mainstream social media Web sites and, lately, The New York Times and Bloomberg, after reports about family members of Chinese leaders becoming fabulously wealthy.

It’s a tribute to China’s stunning economic development that the country now has some 540 million Internet users, more than any other country. It’s sad to see current leaders reverting to a tighter vision of the Internet. “How can we develop our skills,” one Chinese friend asked me rhetorically, “if we can’t even visit some of the most popular Web sites around the world?”

Many Chinese vault over the Great Firewall of China to get to banned sites with a virtual private network or VPN. But, in the last month China, has rolled out new software that interferes with VPNs, even ones used by American corporations to access their internal networks. The government is also trying to crack down on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, by making users register with their real names.

These Internet crackdowns annoy many young Chinese, who may not think much about multiparty democracy but do want to be able to see YouTube videos.

My hope is that the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, will recognize that China’s economic competitiveness and ability to fight corruption depend upon openness. Deng Xiaoping used to compare reform to opening a window, admitting a few flies along with fresh air. During Deng’s watch, China embraced potentially troublesome communications technologies — photocopiers, cellphones, fax machines — because they are also indispensable to modernization. So is a free Web.

So to the new Politburo, a suggestion: How about cracking down on Web sites that sell guns and drugs, while leaving alone those that traffic in ideas and information?

Last but not least, here’s Ms. Collins:

Right now you are probably asking yourself: Will the new Congress being sworn in this week work any better than the last one?

There’s always a chance. Because, you know, it’s new. Also, the bar is low, since some people believe the departing 112th Congress was the worst in history, because of its stupendous lack of productivity and a favorability rating that once polled lower than the idea of a Communist takeover of America.

On the very last day the Republican-led House of Representatives was in session, the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, announced it was “why the American people hate Congress.” This was after Speaker John Boehner failed to bring up a bill providing aid to the victims of the megastorm Sandy. Disaster relief joined a long list of bills that the 112th Congress could not get its act together to approve, along with reforming the farm subsidies and rescuing the Postal Service. Those particular pieces of legislation were all written and passed by the Senate, a group that’s generally less proactive than a mummy.

Ah, the House. To be fair, it takes a lot of effort to vote to repeal Obamacare 33 times.

Our outgoing lawmakers did retrieve us from that “fiscal cliff.” Although they were the ones who pushed us off in the first place. And they left the new Congress facing a debt chasm, a sequestration void and a government-stoppage bottomless pit.

So, yeah, this last one was pretty darned bad. The best argument I can make for it is that none of the outgoing members walked onto the floor and brained a colleague with a cane, as did happen in the 34th Congress. Which also was being led by President Franklin Pierce. So I would give the 34th the ribbon. But definitely the 112th is a contender.

The new Congress will have a few more Democrats in the House and Senate, which will not make any difference whatsoever. On the plus side, the proportion of political nut jobs may be a little lower. Representative Allen West of Florida, who once called President Obama “a low-level socialist agitator,” is, many recounts later, a member no more. Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois was defeated by Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran who lost both legs in Iraq and who Walsh claimed was not one of “our true heroes.” Walsh was also an excellent reminder of an important rule in American politics: refrain from criticizing the other party for fiscal irresponsibility until you can work out a resolution of that child support issue.

Tea Party favorite Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina has departed, too, even though his term was only half over, to answer the siren call of a seven-figure job at the helm of the Heritage Foundation.

Thanks to the blog Smart Politics, I am able to report that this is normal behavior in South Carolina: one-third of all U.S. senators from South Carolina have resigned over the course of our history. (South Carolina is also the state that gave us the guy with the cane back in 1856.) DeMint was replaced by Representative Tim Scott, whose seat will be filled in a special election this spring. Right now one of the possible candidates is Mark Sanford, the governor who we all remember for flying to Argentina for an assignation with his lover while his staff claimed he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Another much-discussed potential contender is Jenny Sanford, former wife of the above. People, while you are praying for a safe, sane and peaceful new year, I want you to make a small exception and pray that Jenny and Mark Sanford run against each other.

DeMint’s departure was only unusual for its abruptness. Members of Congress regularly glom onto high-paying jobs in the private sector, none of which involve the use of their skills in computer technology. The Center for Responsive Politics counts 373 former House and Senate members who are currently working as lobbyists.

That includes the former Utah Senator Bob Bennett, who announced that he would be filing his official papers on Thursday, the exact moment the legal two-year revolving door ban expires. Bennett had complained bitterly about the cooling-off period being a restraint of his constitutional rights, which left him forced to eke out a living as a consultant for the BennettGroup and a member of a high-profile Washington law firm.

When it comes to a sudden departure, though, the new titleholder has to be Representative Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, who quit Congress to become president and chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association less than a month after she was re-elected to another term. She said she had found “a new way to serve.” The Center for Responsive Politics noted that the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association was not only a big lobbying group, but also Emerson’s “biggest lifetime campaign contributor.”

Still, remember, could be worse. No canes.

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One Response to “Blow, Kristof and Collins”

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