By Winston Davis
Conventional politicians are actors who recite scripts dictated by their parties. When the script changes, they look pretty silly. Take poor Bob Goodlatte who, for years, has done the GOP's bidding but is now under attack from all sides.
Concerned about the environment? Goodlatte wants to gut the Clean Water Act and prevent the EPA from implementing a vital, court-ordered plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. He wants to set aside enforceable standards in favor of a watered-down scheme that would fill the Bay with higher levels of phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment. Faithful to the big business line of his party, Goodlatte kowtows to agricultural and poultry lobbies (bankrolled by companies like Perdue), while turning his back on small-time farmers and "watermen" from the local fishing and crabbing communities.
Goodlatte's proposed balanced budget amendment is even worse. Balancing the federal budget is intuitively appealing to everybody who hates government waste and inefficiency. But Goodlatte's solution throws the baby out with the wash. It requires a super-majority in both chambers to increase taxes or run a deficit. A three-fifths majority would be necessary to raise the debt ceiling. In effect, Goodlatte's plan creates two new fiscal filibusters in each chamber - as though the Senate's present filibuster were not bad enough!
Standard and Poor's managing director, John Chambers, says that Goodlatte's proposal would make it more likely the country will default on its obligations. He reminds us that the mere possibility of default is enough to lower the nation's credit-rating. (S&P reduced the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+ after Goodlatte and fellow Republicans threw a temper tantrum during the debt-ceiling debate last year). Chambers warns that the Goodlatte amendment would limit the ability of Congress to deal with future financial crises.
On the other hand, conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) predict that Goodlatte's proposal will result in higher taxes and a larger federal government. This puts Goodlatte (who foolishly signed Grover Norquist's pledge never to raise taxes) in a real bind. Goodlatte weakly claims that smaller tax increases now will prevent larger ones in the future. But who knows? He points out that in 1798 Thomas Jefferson himself came out for a balanced budget rule, forgetting that Jefferson later said that it was fine for the government to borrow money if it could pay the money back "in one generation."
Fortunately, in Andy Schmookler, a brilliant, passionate, and scrappy Democrat from the Mt. Jackson area, Virginia's Sixth District has an alternative to Goodlatte and his reckless schemes. Schmookler points out that Goodlatte's amendment would result in cuts in Social Security and Medicare - programs that we seniors depend on. It would reduce federal spending by shifting financial responsibilities and taxes to state and local governments.
Schmookler argues that Goodlatte's position is the same as Herbert Hoover's, and that Hoover's commitment to a balanced budget prolonged the Great Depression. Here's why. In a recession or depression people are afraid to spend money. Demand dries up and people are thrown out of work. Schmookler says that when this happens, the government itself should jump-start the economy by acting as "the consumer of last resort." Goodlatte's amendment makes this kind of last-ditch intervention impossible. As a trickle-down fundamentalist, Goodlatte mistakenly believes the economy can be revived by cutting the taxes of the rich.
Schmookler points out that Republicans have financed two wars in the Middle East by keeping them "off the books," borrowing and raising the national debt. Under GOP leadership, the government also failed to pay for a hugely expensive expansion of Medicare. Schmookler reminds us that Goodlatte voted for all of these things, and that he voted seven (!) times to raise the national debt ceiling. Like directionally challenged Mitt Romney, Goodlatte apparently thinks he can go forward by doing a U-turn.
Schmookler believes that America's problem today is not just political; it's spiritual. He says that conventional politicians like Goodlatte have put people into a "state of trance." To those under the sorcerer's spell, there is no difference between self-interest and virtue, or between what's good for big business and what's good for the country. Few notice the irony of Republicans attacking Republican ideas - e.g., proposals like "cap and trade" and the "individual mandate," ideas that originated in conservative circles. Once Democrats show any interest in these proposals they become taboo for Republicans. The only thing that matters to Republicans is to keep Democrats off balance and thereby defeat Barack Obama. Conservatives, who are supposed to "conserve" (i.e., preserve) what is good in our tradition, have become a "wrecking crew" bent on destroying anything that benefits the average person.
Unlike Bob Goodlatte, Andy Schmookler is no ordinary politician. He's not even an ordinary Democrat. Listen to what he's saying and you'll hear what his campaign refreshingly calls "truth for a change."
Dr. Winston Davis is a professor emeritus at Washington and Lee University. He lives in Lexington, Va., where he writes a monthly column for the News-Gazette.