Monday, March 10, 2003

The Distinguished Gentle-Column

My Tribune column ran on Monday (this morning) but yesterday, I had a piece in the Sunday Arizona Republic. The Perspective section did a three-parter on reaction to Gov. Napolitano's comments about the quality of the Arizona congressional delegation. So the Republic got a GOP political consultant, a sitting GOP state legislator, and me--2 R's and a D. Now, that's balance!

I love the paragraph breaks inserted by the Republic editor. It's all in having 800-1,000 words instead of 600. I'll post the Trib column later today or tomorrow morning; it's a hectic day here today.

Slavish devotion to dogma is not effective governance

Arizona Republic, Mar. 9, 2003

I guess it all depends on what you mean by a "good job."

Gov. Janet Napolitano left an opening for a front-page story when asked to critique our congressional delegation. She saluted Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl and Reps. Jim Kolbe and Ed Pastor, and said she hadn't enough time to pass judgment on the three freshmen.

Thus was created headline news: "Guv Doesn't Compliment Shadegg, Hayworth, Flake."

Still, despite being right on the merits, it was a political misstep. Spend enough time in the U.S. Capitol, and you begin to think everybody talks about somebody they can't stand as "my esteemed colleague, the distinguished gentleman." At worst, Napolitano should have said she holds even the most underperforming delegation member in "minimum high regard" -- which is Congress-speak for "pond scum."

The three non-complimented (but still, needless to say, esteemed and distinguished) representatives quietly let it be known that their feathers were indeed ruffled. Few sentient beings have memories quite so long as a member of Congress who has taken umbrage.

Still, revenge doesn't test well in focus groups, and none of the actual principals has any interest in continuing this fight publicly. But The Republic is perfectly happy to hold coats and watch surrogates go a few more rounds instead.

Hey, don't blame me!

The real problem is that legislators grade their performance by standards that don't apply, or make sense, to anybody else. Members of Congress deal with issues of national scope, and don't focus on details. But more significant, they're legislators. It's their job to concoct national strategies - but it's always somebody else's job to put those grand plans into actual practice.

Governors, however, are executives; people hold them responsible for performance. They have to see things in practical terms: who is helped or hurt, which programs get cut or expanded. They're accountable, and have to deliver results. Legislators give themselves good grades based on press releases, sound bites and non-determinative votes. Results? Results are for losers.

Who signed the check?

Arizona's governor looks at the costs our state and counties must pay for problems caused by federal government, and the tab is huge. But to some legislators, the real problem with the federal government is the federal government itself. (Never mind that they're part of the federal government, too. These guys are so busy doing talk radio that they forget their own paychecks say "United States Treasury.")

Sure, they may be somewhat concerned that Arizona faces unfunded mandates and federally created problems, but these ideologues are more concerned about cutting taxes and (this next part is strictly theoretical, as it's never actually happened) reducing the size of the federal government.

To these guys, Arizona's major federal issues -- reimbursing counties for health care and jail costs for undocumented immigrants, protecting against forest fires, assistance for programs and facilities at our universities, support for homeland security costs for state and local governments -- may be theoretically important, but they care more about their ideological "Washington-as-the-root-of-all-evil" crusade.

True believers in this "just cut spending" theology share an unshakable conviction, impervious to facts, that the federal government should do essentially what it does now but somehow spend much less doing it. But that belief makes no sense after the recent budget moves by the GOP Congress and the Bush administration.

A raft of sycophants

Sure, every true believer in "just cut spending" theology has a list of six-figure, seven-figure, and sometimes even eight-figure programs that could be cut. But when the annual budget deficit is in the 12-figure range, it would take some nearly 1 million separate Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earmarks to approximate just the current fiscal year's budget deficit. And when President Bush's State of the Union speech promised billions more to fight AIDS in Africa, hydrogen car research, and a Medicare prescription drug benefit, our delegation didn't stop their clapping.

Katie, bar the door!

Can anyone explain why, with the current federal budget deficit headed north of $330 billion, there's no room to help Arizona deal with problems created or made worse by the federal government? Over the past two years, Congress has increased federal discretionary spending by 22 percent, the largest two-year jump since 1976-78. The horse already left the barn, but our delegation is still putting on their pants.

Any Arizona representative not fighting fiercely to fix unfunded mandates and expenses imposed on our state and local governments (much less traditional "pork") out of tender concern for the country's fiscal health is a day late and a half-trillion dollars short.

The numbers are getting worse, not better. Arizona didn't get the help we needed in the fiscal 2003 budget, and the Bush 2004 budget offers an even-larger budget deficit but still no real assistance for Arizona's border counties, first-responders, forests, and health care providers.

Thus, to get assistance for health care costs for undocumented immigrants along the border (last year AHCCCS paid about $43 million, plus our hospitals provided millions more in uncompensated care), Congress will have to add the money, but President Bush undoubtedly will portray any increase in any of his spending numbers as shameless pork.

Hey -- he's doing it already. How did the nation's top Republican rate the performance of Congress on homeland security?

"I was disappointed that the Congress did not respond to the $3.5 billion we asked for," Bush said last month. "They not only reduced the budget that we asked for, they earmarked a lot of the money."

When even Bush is triangulating away from these guys, you know who has won this particular debate. Some of our delegation hasn't gotten the job done, but I guess they've kept their ideological purity. Meanwhile, Arizona needs -- and is still waiting for -- results.

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