Monday, November 13, 2006

Democratic plans

Thus far the Democrats are being very careful with their newfound majority, avoiding extreme partisan talk or scary agendas and focusing on a few laudable goals.

Among them:

Clean up government. There's always a disconnect between action and rhetoric on this issue, but Nancy Pelosi has vowed to run the cleanest Congress in history, and she already has one of the means to do it: The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which she tried and failed to get through the GOP congress. It prohibits congressmembers from accepting most gifts from lobbyists, including travel on corporate jets, meals, tickets and entertainment. And it would create an independent office to catalog lobbyist contacts. That's a big start. But the elephant in the room is earmarks. Normally I'd apologize to Republicans for the elephant metaphor, but the fact is that earmarks have exploded under Republican rule, in part because Republicans made a concerted effort to ensure that lobbyists paid through the nose for such favors. If Pelosi can't or won't rein those in, corruption will continue apace -- and will lose its Republican tinge.

Fiscal responsibility. Some people find it weird or false to hear Democrats talk about this, but the last six years of Republican rule should have shredded any belief voters had that Republicans were capable of fiscal discipline. Even if you think Democrats will raise your taxes, tax-and-spend is more defensible, both ethically and economically, than borrow-and-spend. The centerpiece of this effort is PayGo, which means reinstituting Clinton-era rules that required any new spending or tax cuts to be offset by spending cuts or tax hikes. It's a common-sense rule that prevents Congress from adding to the deficit and encourages them to start reducing it.

What's odd is how senior Republicans like John Boehner (likely to be the new minority leader in the House) oppose it. Their logic: it encourages tax hikes, because it's easier to raise taxes than cut spending. Only in partisanland would the argument "don't impose fiscal discipline because I can't keep myself from raising taxes" be taken seriously.

In the end, though, the argument should be less about economics and more about ethics. It is unethical to force our kids and grandkids to pay for programs we're spending on ourselves. Borrowing money to win World War II is one thing; borrowing money so that we can have lots of government services and low taxes is simply reprehensible.

They'll also preserve the estate tax, which I fully support. If you're going to restructure a tax, it should be the Alternative Minimum Tax. It makes no sense to give multibillionaires a huge tax break while the AMT expands to ensnare more and more middle-class taxpayers.

Oversight. This is where the new Congress can really shine if it can avoid a few tantalizing pitfalls. Congress needs to reassert its oversight role, and there is every indication that it will do so. For starters, Democrats say they will revoke the last-minute provision that stripped funding from the Iraq auditor's office. Such moves are laudable. The risk, however, is that Democrats will gleefully launch dozens if not hundreds of investigations into administration activities, using them to harass Bush rather than focus U.S. policy. A number of investigations are called for, including the long-delayed report on U.S. use of intelligence in the runup to Iraq, examinations of the incompetent occupation planning and probes of some of Bush's more controversial initiatives, like warrantless eavesdropping. But endless fishing expeditions are not what Democrats were elected to pursue.

After that the Dems have a few populist measures planned: raising the minimum wage, reforming the Medicare Part D debacle, stuff like that.

All in all, a good, substantive agenda that seems destined to enjoy a lot of popular support. I'm sure the more partisan issues will crop up down the line. But this is a very promising start.

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