Voter turnout in the United States is an embarrassment. For a republic that is supposed to be the vanguard of democracy around the world, when 55% of eligible voters casting ballots is considered good, that's rather dismaying. Of course, seeing what happens when the uninformed vote, we may want to consider putting some hurdles in place. Perhaps we should force voters to pass the same test we require of immigrants seeking citizenship.
One reason voter turnout is so low is that many voters feel that regardless of who they vote for, nothing is going to change. Given the amount of time and energy that goes into picking candidates that might seem a bit odd. For federal offices campaigns can start two years before the actual election. Primaries start out sometimes with a dozen or more contenders that frequently represent a wide spectrum of ideas within the party. After months of back and forth voters in each party nominate their standard bearers to face off in the general election. (Sometimes it’s the case that the nominees are almost mirror images of one another, as happened in New York’s 23rd Congressional district in 2009.) The election is then supposed to decide between competing views and the victor heads off to Washington. Despite all of that effort every two years, many people feel like nothing ever changes.
The 2010 election was supposed to be different. Anyone with a pulse could see that 2010 was unusual. The Tea Party movement had taken on a life of its own and became a national story throughout the cycle. The mainstream media and much of the Democratic Party spent most of the cycle telling lies about the Tea Parties and spoofing their members. On the Republican side you had candidates tacking to the right in order to gain the support of various Tea Party groups.
When the dust settled on November 3rd one might have thought that the universe had been turned upside down. The Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate. In the matter of two years the Democrats went from having an overwhelming majority in the House to having the fewest seats they’ve held since 1947. They lost their filibuster proof majority in the Senate in January when the nominally Republican Scott Brown won in Massachusetts and on election day they lost six more seats. Come January 2011 one might imagine that America had actually turned off the Road to Serfdom and decided to pursue prosperity.
Then again maybe not… Unfortunately, if the events of the last week are any indication of what’s coming prosperity may be delayed somewhat. Two events demonstrate that the voters who abstain from voting because it doesn’t matter who’s in power just might be right.
The first involves the hierarchy in the House. On Wednesday the Republican Steering Committee assigned the chairmanship of the single most powerful committee in House: Appropriations. The House Appropriations Committee controls essentially all federal spending. Simply put, it doesn’t matter what Congress or the President say or do, if Congress doesn’t appropriate money for something, it’s not likely to get done, and almost all appropriations must come through the House Appropriations Committee. And so, in this atmosphere of change where voters stood up and demanded fiscal restraint, who did the GOP put in charge of the purse strings of almost 30% of GDP? One of the Young Guns who live and breathe fiscal restraint? No – although none of the three were on the Committee in the first place. A hardened veteran of the House with bonafide spending restraint credentials? No. Rather, John Boehner and the Steering Committee put Hal Rogers in charge. Who’s Hal Rogers? Just a 30 year house veteran known in his home state of Kentucky as the “Prince of Pork” for his success in sending American taxpayers money to the Bluegrass State. Just in the last three years Congressman Rogers secured 135 earmarks worth $246.4 million of your money. (He now claims he has seen the light and is swearing off earmarks…) If this isn’t a case of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse then the phrase has no meaning. In a universe where the government spends trillions of dollars it neither has nor should be spending in the first place, this appointment says much about what the GOP really stands for.
The second wound the GOP inflicted on America last week was the agreement with President Obama to extend the Bush tax cuts. While an extension of the tax cuts was important, the GOP needlessly gave away the farm in order to get it. Having come off a resounding victory where the country clearly voiced its desire for a change in direction and demanded a halt to government spending, there was no need for the GOP to capitulate to Democrat spending demands. Nonetheless, Mitch McConnell and his cronies did so and agreed to extend unemployment benefits for another full year - for a total of 3 years of unemployment benefits. What’s worse, before even making it to the House floor the bill has been loaded with an extension of ethanol credits (AKA subsidies to farmers), subsidies for energy efficient appliances and benefits for mass-transit employees. To an objective observer this is nothing but Washington as usual. The GOP had an opportunity to take a stand and send a clear message to the Democrats, and more importantly to the American people who will be voting in the 2012 elections. Had they demanded a clean vote on a full extension of the tax cuts, the Democrats, who still control both houses, would likely have refused or defeated it. Taxes would have then gone up on January 1st. At that point, with control in the House and a much stronger hand in the Senate, the GOP could have brought a clean bill to the floor and it would have passed. Despite his class warfare rhetoric, President Obama would have likely felt compelled to sign it. Either way, the issue would have brought to the fore a clarifying fight where the GOP would have won the day and eventually the cuts. But alas it seems that is not how things seem to work in Washington …
It’s often said that you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. Conservatives can only hope that that is not true for the GOP because if last week’s actions a precursor of two more years of go-along-to-get-along politics as usual, then Barack Obama is going to be a happy man as he is elected to his second term when conservatives stay home after rightfully concluding that there is really little difference between the parties. If such a disaster occurs the GOP should be laid to rest with Abraham Lincoln and America should look for a national Tea Party to help rescue the Republic.