WASHINGTON – There is something entirely appropriate about holding the State of the Union address on the same day as Mardi Gras.
One is a display of wretched excess, when giddy and rowdy participants give in to reckless and irresponsible behavior.
The other is a street festival in New Orleans.
There is, thankfully, less nudity in the House chamber for the president’s annual address, and (slightly) less inebriation. But what occurs beneath the Capitol Dome is as debauched as anything on Bourbon Street.
The State of the Union ritual is by now familiar to most Americans. President Obama leads the Democratic side of the chamber to a series of standing ovations for proposals that everybody knows won’t become law. Republicans show their seriousness of purpose by smirking or making stony faces – and by inviting as guests to the speech people such as rocker Ted Nugent, who has called the president a “piece of (excrement)” who should “suck on my machine gun.”
But this spectacle, unlike the one in Louisiana, is not all harmless fun. Obama made clear that he is not entertaining serious spending cuts or major entitlement reforms. Republicans, in their responses, repeated that they are not budging on taxes. The hard choices will have to wait for another day.
The standoff gives new meaning to Fat Tuesday: The nation’s finances are a mess, but – what the heck? – let’s have another round. No wonder a new Washington Post poll found that 56 percent of Americans have a dim view of the country’s political system.
Early in his address, Obama pronounced himself “more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances.” He blithely proclaimed that the rest of the job could be done by making “modest reforms” to Medicare and “getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off.”
He didn’t mention that this would leave the country with a historically high debt level – and would be but a temporary fix before health care costs explode in a decade. Departing from his prepared text, Obama challenged the idea that “deficit reduction is a big emergency, justifying making cuts in Social Security.”
The opposition, by contrast, was up to the usual antics for such evenings. Democrats across the chamber wore green ribbons to honor the victims of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, as did many Senate Republicans, but no member of the House Republican majority appeared to have joined in the remembrance.
Republicans glowered as Democrats applauded Obama for criticizing their efforts to protect military spending at the expense of other programs. They glared as Democrats applauded his call for equal treatment for all military personnel, “gay and straight.” Former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan smiled dismissively and whispered to a neighbor as Obama spoke of the budget.
They declined to join a standing ovation even when Obama said that “the state of our union is stronger.” Up in the public gallery, Nugent, in jeans and cowboy boots, didn’t even rise with the rest of the chamber when House Speaker John Boehner said he had “the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.”
Adding to the carnival atmosphere, spectators in the gallery offered shouts of encouragement; one woman was removed from the hall. The raucousness on the floor reached its peak when Obama called for a vote on gun-control measures in honor of the victims. Republican leaders squirmed, then stood awkwardly, as Democrats chanted, “They deserve a vote!”
Washington’s version of Mardi Gras had begun early in the day, at the Capitol South Metro station, where members of a nonpartisan balanced-budget group, Bankrupting America, offered beads to passers-by willing to “show us your cuts.”
By that standard, few necklaces would be distributed. Democrats and Republicans alike would sooner bare their private parts than come clean about what government programs they would cut. Even Ryan, who is drafting a budget that could slash domestic discretionary spending by 40 percent over a decade, doesn’t like to be specific. And House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says, “It is almost a false argument to say we have a spending problem.”
Pelosi’s formulation is just as reckless as the Republicans’ mantra: “We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.”
In reality, we eventually need both spending cuts and tax increases – and lots of them. But sacrifice will have to wait. In Washington, they’re still partying like there’s no tomorrow.
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