How Low Can You Go?

THE PERFECT SPOKESMEN

Although they get little respect from political analysts, the forces of irony have been hard at work in the new Congress. They showed their subversive influence when the House Republican leadership chose Representative Thomas Bliley of Virginia to chair the committee in charge of health legislation. Bliley, a long-time advocate of tobacco interests, is an undertaker by profession.

The same hidden forces must have been responsible when Senate Republicans picked Alfonse D'Amato to spearhead the special investigation of Whitewater. Purity has never had more transparent representation than from Al and his pals.

Was it also the forces of irony that put Representative Christopher Cox of California in charge of legislation to change the nation's securities laws to make it more difficult for investors to sue companies and their advisors for fraud? Cox is currently a defendant in just such a case stemming from his prior legal practice, in which investors in two real estate funds claim they were defrauded of $16 million. In one of the rare expressions of compassion by current congressional leaders, Cox told the New York Times that being a target of litigation has led him to "sympathize with people who are victimized in these suits."

Then there is Representative Charles Taylor, a logger in private life. Taylor has a clear idea for reform of public forests. "We should be working to make America the lumber bin of the world with those forest lands," he told the Wall Street Journal.

The current Republican Congress has overcome conflicts of interest by simply denying that any such thing exists. One moment they have business lobbyists write the laws that will apply to their industries; the next moment they claim to be populists. Only the surreptitious agents of irony can explain this.

No issue has been a greater source of irony than term limits. Here we have the spectacle of Republican House leaders endorsing a principle which, if applied to them, would prevent them from remaining in office--indeed, from serving in the current Congress. But, of course, the proposals they brought to the House floor exempted themselves--only days after they had passed legislation saying that Congress should be subject to the same laws as everyone else. Could the forces of irony have devised a more delicious contradiction?


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The answer is yes. In the spirit of Bliley, D'Amato, and Cox, Senate Republicans might put forward Strom Thurmond, age 92, as their spokesman on term limits. Come to think of it, Thurmond might actually change some minds on the subject.


MORE LIKE THEM

It's not uncommon for opponents of prison labor to cite the practices of communist regimes. But we did a double take when Senator Phil Gramm on May 9 said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, "I'd like to turn our prisons into industrial parks. Every year since I've been in Congress, Jesse Helms, my dear friend, has offered an amendment to ban Chinese goods produced by prison labor. And every year I wonder why we can't make our own prisoners work."

As a former economics professor, perhaps Senator Gramm can diagram what happens to the price of labor when individuals who are "free to choose" whether to take work must compete against those who are coerced to work for nothing. Isn't it curious that a politician who professes to defend free markets somehow forgets about the most elementary conditions of freedom when it comes to labor?


HIT THEM WHEN THEY'RE DOWN

Republican proposals to cut back the earned income tax credit have taken many people by surprise. After all, the EITC rewards work and has long enjoyed bipartisan support. Just when many Republicans are proposing to cut taxes for people with higher incomes, one might not have expected them to propose raising taxes for people just struggling to get by.

But there's apparently lots more money to be recovered from low-income people. For example, New York's Governor George Pataki proposed in April to raise $320,000 a year by charging the homeless for staying in shelters. The charges would apply to homeless people determined to have personal assets, jobs, or other sources of income. To be sure, charging the homeless for shelter may prevent them from getting together enough money to get back into the private housing market, but state officials said it would teach them "responsibility." (Thanks to Chris Haupt of Dartmouth College for this item.)

Charging the homeless for shelters might also lead some of them to sleep on sidewalks and in other public places. But there's an obvious remedy: charge for that, too. Emile Zola said the rich and poor were equally free to sleep under the bridges. Now maybe they'll be equally free to pay for the privilege.


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