Some years ago, my wife and I, together with our young daughter, took a circuitous summer train trip through France, Italy, Austria and Germany. The last leg was an overnight express from Berlin that deposited us at the Gare du Nord in Paris just at sunrise. Feeling washed out from the ride, we made our separate ways to the facilities. I was standing at the urinal with a bunch of other men, relieving myself, when I heard this awful groaning coming from a stall. The groaning grew louder and more painful sounding. Some guy was obviously having a terrible time with his bowels. The agony continued, to the point that we who were by now washing our hands at the sinks were looking at each other in puzzlement, wondering what was going on. I even wondered if someone should ask if the poor wretch if he needed help.
Finally there was this enormous, impossibly long fart of incredible volume and duration. This was followed by a long sigh of relief and an awful stench.
We men in the rest room all looked at each other, shrugging and stifling laughs. A few of us couldn't contain ourselves and actually burst out laughing.
There was a shuffle in the stall, and the latch was turned. We couldn't resist. Everyone turned to see who had just produced such a prodigious noise and odor, expecting to see some huge, ponderous guy lumber out. Instead, a shriveled little old man left the booth, nodded silently at the rest of us, and exited the room.
I'm reminded of this incident by the recent efforts in Congress to produce a health care reform bill--especially of the efforts in Sen. Max Baucus's Senate Finance Committee, which yesterday, after weeks of allegedly painful negotiating among the so-called Gang of Six--three conservative Democrats and three Republicans--and several weeks more of discussions among members of the whole committee, produced a bill that essentially leaves us with the status quo, except with some rather smelly additions, such as a mandate that the uninsured and unemployed buy some crummy health insurance plan offered by the private health insurers or face a stiff fine by the IRS.
If the stench of corruption from the legal bribes of the insurance industry lobby were not so vile and pervasive, we would all be rolling in the aisles at the tiny fart produced by all that straining and pushing on the part of Sen. Baucus (D-Montana) and his Finance Committee colleagues.
Of course, it's not over yet. Once both houses of Congress have voted to approve the bills that have emerged from committee in House and Senate, there will be another session on the pot--this time in a secret conference committee, where members of the leadership of both houses will negotiate to come up with a single bill to send back to their respective houses for an up-or-down vote.
It can be safely predicted that the final legislation will resemble much more the Senate version than the House version, because Senate Democrats long ago surrendered control of that body to the minority Republicans by accepting the so-called Rule of 60, whereby any Republican can simply threaten to filibuster a piece of legislation and the Democrats will immediately take it back and hack off any offending piece of it to ensure that either all Democrats will vote for it, or that one or two allegedly sane Republicans will join the majority of Democrats, thus making a filibuster impossible.
Not once since at least 2006, when Democrats took over the Senate, has the Senate Democratic leadership demanded that all Democrats in that body support a bill or face retaliation, in the form of lost committee assignments or sabotage of a bill important to local constituents--the kind of thing that Republicans have done with their members for years.
Indeed, Democrats seem to like the imaginary Rule of 60, as it gives them a ready excuse to never have to actually do anything progressive, as demanded by their electoral base.
And so, whether it's health care reform, financial industry regulation and reform, climate change legislation, civil liberties, investigations into torture and war crimes, or ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress has come to resemble a French railway station lavatory, with committees grunting away in the stalls behind closed doors, while a little old lady in the corner collects change from the visitors who regularly come in to take a piss and monitor the proceedings.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-area journalist. His latest book is "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net