Government To The Rescue

rand-paulSenator Rand Paul was recently on a TV news show lamenting the circumstances surrounding the bill that supposedly saved America from the “fiscal cliff”—‘‘The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012’.” He explained that the senators were given three minutes to read and evaluate the 154-page bill before voting.

Yes, you read that right—three minutes! They were given the bill at 1:36 a.m. and required to vote at 1:39 a.m. Of course, they complied and the bill was passed by a vote of 89 to 8. (Rand Paul was in the minority.)

Think about that for a moment. They were expected to read, understand, and evaluate a 154-page document in that brief time. To better appreciate just how ridiculous that task was, I looked up the document online. Just quickly skimming it took me longer than three minutes. And as I proceeded, I was reminded of Woody Allen’s remark, “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

Even assuming that all of the Senators are skilled readers and were sober at 1:30 a.m., how likely is it that they comprehended the bill in three minutes? Before answering, consider this fairly typical passage from page 7 of the bill:

(A) 35-PERCENT RATE BRACKET.—In the case of taxable years beginning after December 31, 2012— ‘‘(i) the rate of tax under subsections (a), (b), (c), and (d) on a taxpayer’s taxable income in the highest rate bracket shall be 35 percent to the extent such income does not exceed an amount equal to the excess of— ‘‘(I) the applicable threshold, over  ‘‘(II) the dollar amount at which such bracket begins, and ‘‘(ii) the 39.6 percent rate of tax under such subsections shall apply only to the taxpayer’s taxable income in such bracket in excess of the amount to which clause (i) applies.”

Hardly a fast or simple read. Moreover, before a reader can grasp the significance of much of the bill, it is necessary to look back to the existing law and determine exactly what changes have been made. For example, on page 22, this passage appears:

Section 25A(i) is amended—(i) by striking paragraph (5) and by redesignating paragraphs (6) and (7) as paragraphs (5) and (6), respectively, and (ii) by striking ‘‘section 26(a)(2) or paragraph (5), as the case may be’’ in paragraph (5), as redesignated by clause (i), and inserting ‘‘section 26(a)”.

The senators could not possibly have read, let alone understood and evaluated the bill in three minutes—or, truth be told, in three hours. Clearly, then, they voted without grasping either the main points of the bill or the added “pork” items totally unrelated to the main points, such as the extension of the wind-energy tax credit and the tax subsidy for the Puerto Rican rum industry. (Perhaps the rum provision was included as a marinade for the rest of the pork.)

This fiasco recalls former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s bizarre statement supporting President Obama’s “Affordable Health Care”: “We’ve got to pass it to see what’s in it.”

Imagine your doctor saying “You need to have the surgery before we can determine whether you need the surgery.” Or your spouse saying “We’ve got to buy the car in order to know whether it’s the right car for us.” Or your high school senior saying “I’ve got to enroll in engineering school to see if I want to be an engineer.”

In such cases we would either politely pretend we didn’t hear the remark or recommend that the speaker consider visiting a clinical psychologist. (It’s a shame clinical logicians aren’t available.) But Congress didn’t conclude that Pelosi, or in the present case, Harry Reid, had wandered into Wonderland. No, they simply did as they were told and passed the legislation.

Such behavior has become so common in Congress that we are no longer outraged by it. We may even accept the pathetic explanation that the usual procedures cannot be followed because “this is an emergency.” But the only reason such matters become emergencies is that members of Congress wait until the eleventh hour to deal with them. We pay our representatives to perform their duties responsibly and in a timely manner. Their repeated failure to do so is inexcusable.

The rank and file members of Congress might say that they cannot read bills that are not given to them in a timely manner by the leadership and it is therefore unfair to blame them. The answer to that is that they have an alternative to voting aye or nay—they can abstain from voting and warn their leaders that they will not vote on any measure unless they have sufficient time to read it, raise questions, and have their questions answered.

So even if we sympathize with the rank and file’s predicament, we cannot excuse their adding their own malfeasance to that of their leaders, particularly when it undermines the stability of our country and creates an intolerable burden for future generations.

President Reagan once quipped, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” That observation is truer than ever.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved