If you follow politics and government at all, you know that nothing ever dies in Washington. This includes federal programs, politicians who habitually seek a “second act,” and government bureaucrats who have a better chance of dying than losing their jobs.
That’s why it’s not surprising that, at the very last moment when all seemed lost and the country appeared ready to teeter and totter over a cliff into default, the Gang of Six has arisen Zombie-like to come to our rescue.
They’ve been dead a while so perhaps a little refresher course on who they are might be in order. First, don’t confuse this Gang of Six with the other Gang of Six who tried to work out a healthcare reform compromise in 2009 — and failed. Second, the group is comprised of six senators, three from each party, who have been striving for months figuring out a way to save the country from the profligacy of a president who wants to remake America and a Congress who thinks every federal dollar ever appropriated is a sacred relic to be venerated and worshiped.
Back in May, a key member of the group, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, quit in disgust. He said at the time that the Democratic members of the group weren’t serious about cutting entitlements. “It’s got to be balanced. And I didn’t perceive where we were was balanced,” Coburn said. Their deliberations were behind closed doors and very little in the way of details leaked out, but apparently, the Democrats wanted more than $3 trillion in tax hikes over 10 years while only fiddling at the margins with Medicare. So Coburn left in a snit, saying he could do better.
With one less politician at the table, the Gang of Six kept at it and on Tuesday, emerged from seclusion with the mother of all deficit reduction plans; not that it cuts nearly enough spending, but in sheer unintelligible complexity, it can’t be matched. Reading the summary is an invitation to a headache. Politico strove to reduce the turgid prose into something approaching English:
According to a copy of a summary of the Gang of Six plan, obtained by POLITICO, the group would impose a two-step legislative process that would make $500 billion worth of cuts immediately followed by a second bill to create a “fast-track process” that would propose a comprehensive bill aimed at dramatically restructuring tax and spending programs. The plan calls for changes to Social Security to move on a separate track, and establishes an elaborate procedure for considering the measures on the floor.
A bill that proposes two other bills that proposes another comprehensive bill that would “fast track” the process? And Social Security changes would be an entirely separate bill from all that?
Can it really be that complicated? The short answer is it must be that complex. Without complexity, the rest of us would be able to understand what was going on and that would mean curtains to the small army of lawyers, regulators, aides, bureaucrats, and lobbyists who actually run the country.
As of 2009, there were more than 157,000 pages federal regulations governing every aspect of our lives and businesses, all with the force of law. Each year 3000 to 5000 more regulations are added. Few are ever challenged in court for their constitutionality, although in-house reviews by regulatory lawyers are supposed to take care of that little problem. The point being, those impacted by regulations rarely get a day in court simply because challenging the Colossus is expensive, time consuming, and usually futile. Better to grit your teeth and comply rather than spend your life savings on what is usually a lost cause.
More than 50 federal agencies have regulatory authority over the economy, our workplaces, and our lives. Leave aside the notion that many if not a majority of those regulations are necessary and good. Most are designed to protect us from predators, crooked employers, and even crazy neighbors.
But have we ever asked how any government purportedly representing free people can possibly oversee, manage, direct, command, administer, or even comprehend such complexity? One president, 535 members of Congress, and nine Supreme Court judges cannot even remotely grasp what they have wrought in our names. Yes, the president has cabinet officers who are supposed to ride herd on their departments. But even if they are competent, intelligent, and dedicated public servants, how much can they truly grasp of their department’s total impact on citizens?
We like to say that government is “out of control” but that’s not really true. Such a statement suggests that control was to be had in the first place, or that the system has developed so that control is somehow possible. It hasn’t, and it isn’t. But for those who get rich off this complexity — armies of lobbyists who specialize sometimes in one regulation or one area of the tax code, for instance — there is advantage in making government incomprehensible to everyone else. And if knowledge is power, the same could be said for government bureaucrats who shepherd these regulations through the approval process. Meanwhile, the average citizen who runs a business turns in desperation to those who, for a tidy fee, will guide them out of the labyrinthine maze that is oftentimes designed to entrap them.
When the Gang of Six comes up with a plan that buries its purpose in legislative gambits and tricks, they are really muddying the waters so they and their colleagues don’t have to face facts, and bite the budget cutting bullet. By making the method of cutting trillions from the budget mind-numbingly incomprehensible, they are sowing the seeds for the plan’s own failure — knowingly or not. But by the time the process collapses under its own complexity, who will care? The debt ceiling will have been raised and at least $500 billion will have been cut thus giving the impression that Congress and the president are dealing with the problem.
Over the next decade — the time period when the $3.7 trillion is supposed to be cut from federal spending — the government will spend more than $40 trillion dollars. There is no one on the Hill who doesn’t believe there isn’t at least $3.7 trillion of that unintelligible amount of cash that can’t be stripped from the budget without raising taxes one cent. Not even the most partisan, dedicated liberal could be in such denial.
But by defining the problem using enormously complex triggers and procedures, Congress will escape its responsibility and little, if anything, will be accomplished.