Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid has taken to invoking Harry Truman's line about a "do-nothing Congress," and with ample reason. In dealing with the major issues of our time (global warming, immigration, the diminishing benefits and stagnant wages that characterize today's economy) or in discharging its oversight duties over administration policies that have failed (the war in Iraq) or were stillborn (the rescue of New Orleans), the Republican-controlled Congress has been nowhere to be found. In inverse relation to the seriousness of the challenges that America confronts, this Congress is well on its way to spending the fewest days in session of any in modern memory.
Still, the one thing that should engender more fear than the current Congress's doing nothing is the current Congress's doing something. Every time congressional Republicans are compelled by public pressure to address a serious issue, they retreat to their laboratory and emerge with Frankenstein-monster legislation designed primarily to reward their campaign donors and stick it to the Democrats, and only secondarily to fix the problem. The Medicare drug program they crafted with the Bush White House enabled seniors to obtain some medications at a lower price, but it codified the continued upward spiral of drug prices by forbidding the government from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies -- a linchpin of Republican campaign finance -- to bring prices down.
Now they're at it again. Facing pressure from Northeastern and Midwestern House Republicans fearful of losing their seats this November, the House leadership has at long last relented and crafted a bill, which passed the House at around 1:30 Saturday morning, to raise the hourly minimum wage from its current abysmal $5.15 to $7.25 in three separate stages over the next three years. A decade has passed since Congress last hiked the minimum wage, during which time it has managed in a series of votes to raise its own members' salaries by a cool $31,000. Democrats and labor were hammering the Republicans over this most double of standards; minimum-wage workers were showing up at the Republicans' district offices and on local TV newscasts to dramatize the disparity.
So Republicans had to respond, and they did so in their inimitable cynical fashion. Appended to the minimum wage hike that the vast majority of them opposed was a provision genuinely dear to their hearts: a cut in the estate tax that chiefly benefits the super-rich and that will reduce government revenue over the next decade, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, by $753 billion. The shortfall could well lead to offsetting cuts in programs that benefit the same working poor that the minimum-wage increase would help. But who cares about the poor? The whole point of the exercise was to come up with a bill that might force some Democrats to vote for an estate tax cut they would otherwise oppose, and enable Republicans to claim they weren't really the Dickensian grotesques that many of them in fact are.
Which may be why the Republicans' midnight orations in favor of raising the wage bore minimal resemblance to, say, the Sermon on the Mount. Their tone was best captured by Tennessee Representative Zach Wamp, a Mayberry Machiavelli if ever there was one, who could not restrain himself from telling House Democrats, "You have seen us really outfox you on this issue tonight."
Wamp's taunt can serve as the credo for this entire Republican Congress, which legislates only when, and because, it can outfox the Democrats. It is the credo of the Bush administration as well, which views even its signature policy -- its war on terrorism -- as its foremost wedge issue against the Democrats. Combine this hyper-partisan ethos with a far-right ideology that sees no role for the government even as our corporate welfare state crumbles and our planet turns to toast, and you get a more do-nothing government than Harry Truman could have even imagined.
So the solutions for national problems get kicked downstairs. To date 23 states have passed minimum-wage standards higher than the feds' -- and none of them in statutes designed to subvert themselves or play gotcha with the opposition party. States have begun to enact universal health insurance plans, while cities are passing living-wage ordinances. And just this Monday, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tony Blair signed an agreement between the sovereign state of California and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to curb greenhouse gas emissions, promote clean fuels and fight global warming. "California will not wait for our federal government to take strong action on global warming," said Schwarzenegger, who understands that for a Republican to win election in Democratic California, he has to be a down-the-line environmentalist.
In Washington, meanwhile, Republicans are desperate to hold power. Not to govern, mind you, just hold power.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect. This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.