Legislative Legerdemain

So you think congressional Republicans are the only right-wingers who like to append their pet (and sometimes, wedge) issues—like the Keystone pipeline—to must-pass legislation like the payroll tax-cut extension? Guess again—it looks to be a trans-Atlantic syndrome.

Turns out that David Cameron, Britain’s Tory prime minister, went to Brussels for the EU summit last week with exactly the same strategy. As the heads of government of the other 26 member states debated German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s proposal to regulate national budgets more tightly (itself a wildly irrelevant idea to the crisis of Greek, Italian and Spanish solvency, but that’s another story, which I wrote about in today’s Post), Cameron cleared his throat and proposed a series of measures designed to protect the City—the London-based banks that dominate the British economy and helped bring about the crash of 2008. Cameron was operating under the theory that the Germans and the French so desperately needed unanimous support for their budgetary proposal (unanimity is required to change the EU’s governing charter) that they would exceed to his demands, even though they rightly revile the City, and Wall Street, for creating the mess they were trying to clean up.

Many of Cameron’s proposals, which he had not previewed with any other European leaders, though some had requested that he do so, were highly technical, and bringing them up in a post-midnight meeting turned out not to be such a hot idea. “Nobody understood what Cameron wanted—nobody,” one unnamed European diplomat told the Financial Times. (The FT said he came from a generally pro-British country.) Cameron’s set of proposals, which included rules that affected voting procedures for regulatory user charges, the FT continued, “may have looked reasonable to him, but it was totally baffling to a gathering of leaders grappling in the early hours with questions of economic survival. … The British seemed to believe that Mr. Cameron could win his City concessions by delivering them at short notice at 2am, bouncing leaders into accepting them.”

But the leaders would not be bounced. The proposals, said Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat chief whip in the European Parliament, went down “like a rat sandwich.”

Hard to say what infuriated Cameron’s fellow leaders more—the substance of his proposals or the way he introduced them. (See, again, the GOP’s Keystone Pipeline.) Substantively, what the other European leaders feared was that Cameron was maneuvering to block future financial regulations not on the table that week in Brussels, most particularly the creation of a financial transaction tax (which is supported by Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy). It’s still not clear if Cameron’s proposals would have had that effect, but inasmuch as he had left no time for the leaders and their aides to study them, they were dead on arrival anyway. Merkel, and most emphatically Sarkozy, made clear that they’d make their changes through a 26-nation accord, however clumsy that might be, rather than accept Cameron’s proposals in return for his vote, which would have enabled them to enact their budgetary reform through the more legally unchallengeable route of an EU-wide, all-27-nations-on-board, change to the EU charter.

At one level, Cameron’s miscalculation suggests that the Tory Party of yore—a Wodehousian collection of toffs and twits—may, at its highest levels, be with us still. But the arrogance and insularity behind that miscue is, as I said, a trans-Atlantic attribute of today’s Anglo-American right-wingers, who love nothing more than attaching their laundry lists to essential legislation. The difference is, Europe could say no to Cameron. In the U.S., where the Republicans control one house of Congress and have veto power in the other, some of that laundry list ends up as law.

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