$100 Worth of Thoughts on Incompetent Government
Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online today to chat about government incompetence and the new $100 bill. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Ramesh: The theme of the last week, Margaret, has been one dear to any conservative’s heart: the dysfunction and incompetence of the federal government. The shutdown -- which I expect to last a good deal longer -- was brought on by Republican overreaching and led the Democrats to overreach in return. Insisting that no parts of the government can be reopened, barricading memorials and refusing to negotiate aren’t playing well. And the best thing to be said about the Obamacare rollout is that the federal exchanges are getting health insurance to tens of people.
Margaret: I'm in more despair than you are, and I'm starting to have some "Apocalypse Now" feelings. How can a 10-year veteran of the New York Police Department who belongs to a motorcycle group not stand up for an innocent man being brutally attacked? When the cop looked inside the window he was bashing in and saw a small child, why wouldn't he stop and try to save them? This is part of my bleak view of human nature. The privileged class wants to destroy the government as much as that gang wanted to destroy that Range Rover. It feels good. A large contingent in the House of Representatives talks about how excited they are to finally have their way shutting down government. They get to lift weights in the House gym, but a dead soldier's family doesn't get to travel to Dover, Delaware, to meet the casket. Democrats aren't overreaching by not opening parts of the government Republicans suddenly decide they like. They aren't overreaching by closing memorials when there are no national park rangers there. Where you are right, though, is on the language the president is using. Those who aren't following this obsessively hear him say he won't negotiate and they don't understand why. They just hear the Republican talking points -- we don't want the government shut down, and we desperately want to negotiate. The news media helps in that we eventually fall into covering all Washington fights equivalently. Congress has a 5 percent approval rating, and the numbers for Democrats are getting worse. On the merits, however, House Speaker John Boehner should be ashamed of himself.
Ramesh: I find the Democratic insistence that no closed parts of the government be allowed to reopen bizarre. Let's assume that the metaphor the Democrats are using is fair, and the Republicans have taken government programs hostage. When Iran took hostages in 1979, we didn't make any concessions to them in return for letting some of the hostages go -- but we didn't oppose their being let go, either. It's not the media that's causing Democrats to get some blame here. It's their own behavior. That doesn't, of course, excuse what the Republicans are doing. But I have more sympathy for Boehner than you do. A "clean" CR -- a budget bill that reopens the government without any anti-Obamacare conditions -- could pass the House with mostly Democratic votes. I think he's refusing to let it pass not because he's afraid for his job, but because it would make it much harder for him to raise the debt limit -- and he rightly thinks that's more important.
Margaret: If Boehner is doing this to protect the full faith and credit of the country, there's less shame on his head. You don't excuse Republicans, but then you blame Democrats for the current state of affairs. It is a terrible week for government from the cop who became a criminal to Senator Tom Coburn's findings that thousands of people collect disability payments who aren't the least bit disabled (thanks to law firms specifically set up to help them do it), and the $100 bill debacle. Really, one of the basic tasks even Michele Bachmann would allow government to do -- mint money -- makes us look like a tin-pot dictatorship as a billion dollars' worth of bills had to be shredded because the hologram was off. By the way, the bill is so tarted up it looks like something a banana republic would issue.
Ramesh: And it turns out that $100 bills are themselves pretty important, even though most of us don't see them very often. More than three-quarters of the value of the currency we've got are in Benjamin Franklins. Who knew there were so many drug dealers and tax evaders? More evidence for your grim view of human nature this week, Margaret. We'll bring you over to the right eventually.
Margaret: If the cop, the lying able-bodied non-workers and the bumblers at the mint weren't enough to destroy my faith in humanity, how about the retail phase -- drumroll please -- of Obamacare. If I were president, I would pick out a few functions of government that have to go right -- printing money, seeing to the backlog of the half-million claims for veterans benefits, and making signing up for health care as easy as one-click shopping on Amazon.com. The chief technology officer had years to get this site running. I'd be asking him every week: Are you ready to give me a demo? Jon Stewart challenged Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to a contest this week: Could she get onto www.healthcare.org before he could download every movie ever made. Too bad Jeff Bezos is too busy with his purchase of the Washington Post to help.