The problem with modern-day politics, aside from everything, is that it lacks consistent excitement.
Sure, there are moments when debate over a major bill gets attention, but our interest fades once the bill passes and we drift back to more intriguing things, like reality television shows about dumb people.
Last week, however, lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Congress took a step that could turn American politics into must-see TV: They serialized democracy.
At issue was a bill to continue funding the Department of Homeland Security, the folks responsible for protecting our borders and keeping the country safe from terrorism. Most would agree it’s important to have that part of the government functioning, largely so it can do its “keeping the country safe from terrorism” thing.
After the requisite amount of harrumphing and whatnot, lawmakers could have just funded the department and moved on to other matters, allowing us to get bored and shift our attention to the myriad Kardashians we have to keep up with.
Instead, a wily group of Republicans decided the Homeland Security funding bill would be a great thing to use as leverage against President Barack Obama’s recent executive action on immigration, which is supposed to shield from deportation about 5 million immigrants who live in the U.S. illegally. The GOP lawmakers said they would only fund the Department of Homeland Security if the bill also rolled back Obama’s executive action, which they say is illegal and tyrannical and really hurt their feelings.
The problem is, Democrats won’t vote for a DHS funding bill that overrides the president’s immigration action, and even if they did, Obama would veto the whole thing. Also, the president’s attempt at immigration reform was recently suspended by a federal judge.
But legal limbo and the Sisyphean nature of legislatively doing away with Obama’s executive action would not deter these Republicans. They stuck to their guns, shot down short-term funding measures and — as the clock ticked to the deadline — finally agreed to give the Department of Homeland Security a week’s worth of additional money.
Several Republicans criticized their own party for being unable to reach agreement on a long-term bill that would keep the DHS running. And Democrats, naturally, had a field day.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Matt Thornton told Politico: “If this is a harbinger of things to come, the American public is in for a very long, painful and unproductive Congress.”
That’s one way to look at things. The other is that America is in for a long, gloriously dramatic and delightfully farcical new season of “Congress.”
With a one-week funding extension, Republicans gave us not just a dramatic cliffhanger — What happens when the homeland you love is no longer protected? — but the promise of another week of political intrigue.
Will Obama cave to the GOP’s pressure, take back his executive action and finally admit he’s a Kenyan-born radical transported through time to bring American society to its knees? Will House Speaker John Boehner rise from his office tanning bed, march to the congressional clubhouse where ultra-conservative lawmakers make forts out of stacks of money and shout, “SERIOUSLY, GUYS?!?”
This is not a failure to govern on the part of Republicans. It’s an ingenious way to methodically push the political narrative forward and keep Americans enthralled.
Perhaps the wildly popular public radio podcast Serial — which drew millions of online listeners by using an episodic format — gave lawmakers this idea. Wherever the concept came from, it’s gold.
Following the Republicans’ “short-term decisions equal long-term drama” lead, Democrats should now restrict their legislative actions to a maximum of seven days.
For example, rather than flatly vetoing the GOP’s Keystone XL pipeline bill, Obama should have issued a special one-week veto. That would have given us days of delicious bickering between legislators, oil companies and environmentalists. Why watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills when you could see The Real Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statements for the Keystone XL Pipeline Project of the State Department?
Here’s the bottom line: Episodic politics would put plenty of butts on sofas and finally get Americans tuning in to what their government is doing or, in most cases, not doing.
What’s to lose? If the whole process is going to be ridiculous, it might as well be ridiculously good TV.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a noted hypocrisy enthusiast. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @RexHuppke.
Photo: Speaker John Boehner via Flickr