President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. (photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Here are what I modestly and humbly refer to as "Grayson's Laws of Legislating":
1) Vote for what you're in favor of.
2) Vote for what you can live with, if you must do that to get what you need.
What we've been seeing in the House of Representatives lately has been a series of massive and pervasive violations of Grayson's Laws of Legislating. Instead of "I'll vote for X because it's right," or "You don't like X and I don't like Y, but I'll vote for X and Y if you vote for X and Y," it's "If I don't get Z, I ain't votin' on nothin'." And that's the problem.
Let's take one very pertinent example: the impeding tax increases on taxpayers making less than $250,000 a year. I don't know a single member of the House, Democratic or Republican, who has said on the record that he or she is in favor of raising taxes, starting next Tuesday, on taxpayers making less than $250,000 a year. Let's suppose that you crafted a one-sentence bill reading as follows: "There shall be no income tax rate increases for the 2013 tax year on taxpayers making less than $250,000 a year." Let's suppose that you then administered sodium pentothal (truth serum) to every member of Congress. Let's suppose that you then had a vote on that bill. Obviously, it would pass the House by 435 to 0, or something close to that. Followed immediately by unanimous passage by the Senate, and the president's signature.
(Here is another entertaining thought experiment: Just for fun, administer sodium pentothol to Rush Limbaugh, too. You'd have three hours of total silence on the airwaves.)
So anyway, in the case of "no income tax rate increases for everyone but the rich," Grayson's First Law of Legislating is sufficient. Everyone's in favor of it, so everyone votes for it. Done.
It turns out that many, many components of the so-called "fiscal cliff" could be resolved quite simply by applying Grayson's First Law of Legislating. I think it's fair to say that a majority of the members of Congress, right or wrong, are in favor of raising the debt ceiling before the government's borrowing capacity is exhausted. I think it's fair to say that a majority of the members of Congress, right or wrong, are against a 27 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors, starting next week. I think it's fair to say that a majority of the members of Congress, right or wrong, are against an 8 percent cut in air traffic control on Jan. 1. If you had single votes, up or down, on 90 percent of the components of the "fiscal cliff," the outcome would not be in doubt.
And as for the remaining 10 percent, then you've got Grayson's Second Law of Legislating to apply. I really, really don't want to see unemployment insurance benefits cut off for millions of unemployed workers, seven days after Christmas. Maybe Rep. Skullinrear (R-Tea Party) doesn't care. But Rep. Skullinrear really, really doesn't want to see a 12 percent cut in defense spending from sequestration next week. I may not share Rep. Skullinrear's morbid preoccupation with blowing stuff up. Nevertheless, his morbid preoccupation with blowing stuff up, together with my odd aversion to seeing families living in cars, gives the two of us something to talk about.
Mick Jagger, that eminent political scholar, had it all figured out more than 40 years ago. You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find -- you just might find -- that you get what you need.
But in the House, that's not what we're seeing at all. Instead, we see what might be called the "Young John McCain" Law of Legislating. Senator John McCain has written that when he was a toddler, he sometimes got so furious that he held his breath until he passed out.
Now John Boehner is doing it. Boehner is holding his breath until America passes out.
It's been 10 months since the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board coined the term "fiscal cliff" when he called attention to the "massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases" that will go into effect less than a week from now. Ten months. But in all of that time, there has been nothing in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives even remotely resembling a line-by-line vote on whether each one of those spending cuts and tax increases, individually, is good or bad. Just John Boehner holding his breath until the Democrats "agree" to extending tax breaks for the rich, and cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits.
It's the worst case of legislation constipation that I've ever seen. But that's what happens -- what ought to happen -- when the folks in charge say over and over again, "I'm in favor of X, but I won't vote for X, or even allow a vote for X, unless I get Y."
We're going to need some kind of patch to get through this. But I hope that the Powers That Be learn from this mistake. Slice it all into little pieces, and then vote each piece up or down. It works. And it's a lot more practical than hoping that John Boehner, or Barack Obama, pulls a rabbit out of his hat.