Streetcar Line

Maddening for Madisonians

Threats to the civic order, including the Senate's effort to play mob boss.

By 10.2.08

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Oh, where to begin?

How does one construct an essay when one sees the national government rapidly turning this country into a nation with which one is just not familiar? I mean, this isn't America anymore.... Is it? Could it possibly be? Is this the nation with a limited government designed by James Madison and his brilliant cohorts?

At a Sept. 22 speech sponsored by Madison's Montpelier, George Will rightly condemned "our abandonment of the sense of balance and restraint and realism." He said that one of Madison's overriding purposes was to "prevent the fleeting passions from becoming law."

Will was speaking in general terms rather than about one particular issue. But what Washington lawmakers are doing with this immense Wall Street bailout fills Will's bill: It is an utter abandonment of balance and restraint and a capitulation to fleeting passions. It represents a massive aggregation of power by the federal government, and within the federal government by the Department of the Treasury. It is a massive interference in the market when far less massive interference might do the trick. It is a manifestation of sheer panic when calm and considered action -- fairly swift action, yes, but not precipitous -- is called for.

The Bush White House, always fond of demanding its way or the highway, presented Congress with an ultimatum: Accept this basic framework for a bailout, and none other, or financial Armageddon will ensue. And at first the word was that the Armageddon would occur if the bailout weren't finished within about four days.

Four days came, and four days went, with no Armageddon. But then the administration said A-Day would happen within the week. Didn't happen. Then it would arrive if Congress voted down the plan on Monday. Didn't happen. The stock market dropped like a rock -- and then it recovered five eighths of its ground the very next day.

All the while, other actors -- bureaucrats, which in this case is an honorific rather than an insult -- continued to take smaller steps to help the market absorb the credit crunch. Without a greater accretion of power, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation stepped in to help stem the panic. So did the Securities and Exchange Commission. So did the Federal Reserve. All of them helped. And more can be done, within existing authority.

The point here is not to celebrate the bureaucratic state, but only to note that the bureaucratic state already is large enough and powerful enough to handle parts of this crisis. It doesn't need to get much bigger.

OF COURSE CONGRESS and the White House should try to stop an economic collapse. Of course some prompt action is required. But the headlong rush to judgment we've seen these past two weeks has been an embarrassment. Newt Gingrich said at a Tuesday press conference that there are, almost certainly, literally "thousands" of good ideas out there about how to stave off economic collapse -- without such a massive concentration of power, without so much risk to taxpayers, without setting a dangerous precedent that turns the state into Leviathan.

Matters got worse when, after principled House members of the right and left combined to slow down the legislative stampede, the Senate decided to collectively play mob boss. By attaching this incredibly important and deservedly controversial bailout bill to not one but two utterly unrelated bills -- one on mental health, and one on tax policy -- the Senate stole the House's constitutional prerogative to originate all revenue bills, used extraneous items as both bribe and blackmail to force the House's hand, and muddied waters that needed clarifying. On legislation so momentous, the public deserves a clean vote, not one obfuscated by parliamentary maneuvering and by the fog of unrelated issues. If a lawmaker is to vote for such a bailout, he ought to be held accountable for deciding the bailout question itself, alone, up or down -- without being rewarded with the ability to hang his explanation for his vote on the presence in the bill of other matters.

What the Senate leadership concocted was an atrocity, an utter derailment of the Madisonian tradition. It was the work of bullyboys, of two-bit legislative gangsters, not of statesmen. The House ought to stand up for its own prerogatives -- not for its own sake, but for the sake of the constitutional order and for the sake of fairness, accountability, and basic decency -- and shove the legislation right back down the Senate's throats.

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign is marred, on one side, by a radical and utterly unaccomplished leftist ideologue joined by a serial plagiarist and exaggerator, and on the other side by a man temperamentally unsuited to the presidency joined by a running mate of high character but embarrassingly low familiarity with national affairs of state.

Yes, this is bad. Actually, awful.

THE GOOD NEWS -- and as Reaganites, we must always search for something good, something real to build on, no matter how small -- is that the past two months have seen a new generation of conservative leaders start to come of age. First in the fight for offshore drilling, and then in their principled attempts to improve and/or oppose the bailout, a group of House and Senate members have distinguished themselves not just with their principles but also with their ability to put those principles to effective and honorable use.

Knowing that I'll leave out some key players who deserve more recognition, and apologizing in advance for unintentionally doing so, I must include on that list of rising stars U.S. Reps. Mike Pence, John Shadegg, Paul Ryan, Jeb Hensarling, Thaddeus McCotter, Marsha Blackburn, Michele Bachmann, Eric Cantor, Louie Gohmert, Pete Hoekstra, Tim Walberg, Tom Feeney, Scott Garrett, Kevin McCarthy, Marilyn Musgrave, and Steve Scalise. There are assuredly dozens more. In the Senate, meanwhile, South Carolina's Jim DeMint has been particularly principled and savvy.

They can reach out, too, to Democrats who keep an open mind even if not philosophically in tune. Georgia's Jim Marshall is a man of principle. Alabama's Artur Davis had the grace this week to apologize for having been wrong a couple of years ago about the safety of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And of course Joe Lieberman, liberal as he is on domestic issues, is a man of immense character as well.

But these stars will need every bit of support they can muster, and the steady assistance of less vocal men of integrity (Alabama's Jo Bonner is one), if they are to overcome the currents of statism above statesmanship and of legerdemain above leadership.

This nation faces some rocky times. Very rocky. Thank goodness these new leaders are there to help us through them. Pray that their numbers increase. We'll need them.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.