The Senate Armed Services Committee met yesterday morning to discuss the damaging effects of the coming sequester, which will mandate that the Department of Defense cut a half trillion dollars of spending over the next ten years. The committee sat a number of general officers, an admiral, and the Deputy Secretary of Defense at the witness table, and everyone clucked in unison over the impending doom facing our nation's security, not to mention the jobs to be lost in every state represented on the committee, if the necessary budget bill to avoid sequester was not passed through Congress.
In the afternoon, the same committee met to vote the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense out of committee and on to the floor of the Senate for confirmation. The hearing to vet Hagel had been ugly, but nothing compared to this one, as senators chided each other for their behavior. How can a state the size of Texas not find someone more suitable than Ted Cruz, who, in a month, has already established himself as a boorish demagogue intent upon playing to some extreme right-wing sliver of the Republican party? His performance was a perfect indicator of the likelihood for comity or compromise developing in the Senate.
The president's State of the Union address and the response by Marco Rubio nicely completed the day's tableau. The president addressed the American people directly, looking past the Republicans in attendance, who weren't listening anyway. Rubio spoke to the American people as if there are no Democrats. The president has made clear that more revenue will be necessary in any future budget deal. The Republicans have been equally emphatic about refusing any further compromise on revenues. Sequester, here we come.
There is talk about a three-week gap between the onset of sequester and when the government runs out of money. This is the time when the next episode of brinkmanship will temporarily rescue the country from some indescribable abyss, and set the stage for the next round of "I know you are, but what am I?" Because things haven't fallen apart, the public will curse the constant, petty bickering, but will heave a sigh of relief, grateful for another short period of stability.
The fact is that this is a recipe for disaster. Not getting things done and temporizing is not the same as getting things right. The guy who has a heart attack, has a bypass, stops smoking, and starts losing weight and exercising is not as good as new. He's had a heart attack, damn it. He's restarting life from a lower baseline, and with a smaller margin for error. He's probably got a damaged heart muscle, and cannot as easily have another bypass if he needs it.
Our country is no different. Bridges that are not cared for end up having to be replaced. Weapons programs that are delayed cost jobs and become more expensive. International situations deteriorate and become more difficult than if addressed early. Uneducated kids become costly adults. The examples are endless, but nothing stands still, and nothing gets better through neglect.
Over the past 20 years, we've heard how civility and comradeship has decreased in Congress as it has become increasingly polarized. The fact is that we reached some surreal place where Congress has started to resemble the legislature of some banana republic with a dozen splinter parties, each catering to the limited constituency that elected it. These special interest groups are forced to cooperate to sort themselves into two major groups only because the rules of Congress force them to do so in order to get leadership positions within the houses and committees. This is particularly true on the Republican side, which has become rudderless and still doesn't seem to understand why it is losing presidential elections.
It's still America, but we're not getting anything done anymore when we should, and the result will be that we'll be setting a lower common denominator for everyone but the privileged few who are never affected by much anyway. This country was built on the idea that there were rich people and people aspiring to be rich who knew that in this country anything was possible. It looks like we're going to settle for a steady slide toward mediocrity. The new baseline will mean less prosperity, dirtier streets, a national defense that makes due by chintzing on the way it cares for its troops. This is not my idea of America. Hopefully, Congress will come around. Hopefully, the White House will learn how to deal with these guys and gals.