• Congress is socially insecure
    April 15,2013
     

    When it comes to congressmen behaving badly — and such a list it is, my friends — the most recent prize goes to Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon. Although I am sorry to say that his bad behavior does not involve any interesting new illicit sex issues.

    It’s surprising that we never noticed him before. After all, Walden has a long legislative background, including being a founder of the House Small Brewers Caucus, as well as the first member of the House to contract swine flu in 2009. But our mission today involves his role as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee — the member in charge of getting other Republican members elected next year.

    When President Barack Obama released his budget, Walden put on his NRCC hat and homed in on the much-publicized proposal to reduce the way cost-of-living raises are computed for Social Security. It was, the congressman claimed on CNN, “a shocking attack on seniors.”

    “I think he’s going to have a lot of pushback from some of the major senior organizations on this and Republicans, as well,” Walden said.

    Consider the poor American public. They were already being flung into a debate that involves long discussions about the impact of “chained CPI.” Now they have to figure out what to make of the leader of the Republican re-election effort attacking their president for doing something the Republicans have been demanding for years.

    And it was awful for the Democrats, who generally spend their political lives defending Social Security from any changes whatsoever. Most of them rolled their eyes, muttered soft, low moans and tried to change the subject. One, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, successfully diverted all attention from entitlement issues by tweeting Cyndi Lauper “couldn’t believe how hot u were” after a show at the White House. We will take this matter up again when we revisit the importance of having elected officials restrict their social media visits to moments when they are under the strict supervision of staff members.

    But then the Republican House leaders started to come down on Obama’s side. Asked about Walden, Speaker John Boehner said: “I’ve made it clear that I disagree.” And the House Budget Committee chairman, Paul Ryan, announced that Obama’s concessions left him “cautiously optimistic” that there could be a bipartisan budget deal.

    What’s going on here? People, are you hopeful that the great partisan stalemate is actually wobbling? Or does Ryan’s cautious optimism make you wildly pessimistic? Do you think the Republican leaders are really hoping to put an end to the march of the fiscal cliffs? Or are they just worried because people have started to compare the House of Representatives to North Korea? Historically, when it’s in a period of implacable nonproductivity, the House has always been compared to a kindergarten class. Pyongyang does have a similar tendency to call everybody out to dance around in colorful costumes for special occasions. But it’s not what you could call a step forward.

    To be fair, Washington has already come a long way budgetwise, compared with say, last year or the year Alexander Hamilton had to deal with the Whiskey Rebellion. The House and Senate have passed their own versions, which are largely detail-free Big Thoughts. (Ryan’s plan expresses concern about the future stability of Social Security and decrees that “both parties must work together to chart a path forward on common-sense reforms.”) The president’s budget, however, is required to be detail-dense, and Obama proposed new spending for infrastructure repair, research and schools along with specific tax increases and spending cuts.

    All the attention, so far, has gone to the Social Security change. Obama has been offering this deal to Republican leaders for ages, yet there seemed to be a tacit agreement on the part of everyone to ignore it. When the president began having dinners with the Republican senators last month, they walked out expressing amazement that he was open to such a thing. This continued in some circles long beyond the point at which the plan was up on the White House website.

    So what do you think? There are some arguments on every side, except of course the one on which Walden is swinging.

    But if you take it in concert with the rest of the budget, Obama’s proposal does speak, in a very modest way, to the fact that this country spends a ton of its resources on the elderly and relatively little on the young. I’d trade a dramatic new commitment to funding quality early childhood education for a change in the way cost-of-living increases are computed for Social Security, as long as the oldest and neediest of the recipients are protected.

    However, anything that makes Paul Ryan this enthusiastic is scary.



    Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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