The President’s Speech

I watched the President’s speech tonight, and I found it to be quite interesting for a number of reasons.

The first part of the speech seemed like “same old, same old,” and I think it will generally be perceived as such.  It appears to be more of the “stimulus” concept that has been tried and — in the views of many people, at least, including me — has been found wanting.  We’ll see what the bill itself says, but funding road and bridge construction projects to benefit construction firms and construction workers, extending unemployment benefits for yet another year, and arguing that the federal government should pay for the hiring of teachers, among other proposals, all sounds very familiar.  How is any of this different from the massive 2009 stimulus bill that has come, been borrowed and spent, and gone, and nevertheless left unemployment above 9 percent?

The middle part of the speech, in contrast, was much more interesting.  I think the President was signaling that he still wants to try to agree on a grand bargain.  He didn’t say specifically how he would pay for his new, “Stimulus Jr.” proposal — those details will be coming in a week or so — but he did talk about the need to revisit and reform Medicare and Medicaid and the need for tax reform as well.  If the President was serious in making those suggestions, there may be a basis for a meaningful compromise that actually puts those expensive programs on sounder long-term footing and gets rid of silly, outdated, tax breaks and special treatment.

The last part of the speech, with its vigorous defense of collective bargaining, government regulation, and government spending, sounded like a campaign speech and, like many campaign speeches, set up and knocked down some straw men.  And, indeed, the President promised to take his message to the country.  What’s wrong with that?  I hope that he does so, and I hope that the country responds with its honest reaction to the President’s proposals.  After we get the details of his plan and how to pay for it, let’s let the President’s ideas, the House Republicans’ ideas, and the ideas put forth by anyone else contend for support in the marketplace of ideas.  That is how America should work.

A Costly Solar Flame-Out (II)

It was bad enough that Solyndra, a solar energy company, abruptly closed its doors recently, after receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal loan guarantees as part of a federal government effort to promote “green jobs.” Today, the news got worse.

The media is reporting that the FBI agents, working in conjunction with the Department of Energy Inspector General’s office,  served search warrants on Solyndra and fanned out to scour buildings on the Solyndra campus, looking for . . . something.  In addition, Congress is investigating what happened, and two Democratic Representatives, Henry Waxman and Diane DeGette, have disclosed that less than two months ago they met with Solyndra’s CEO, who assured them the company was in strong financial position and in no danger of failing.  They urge the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is conducting the investigation, to also look into why the CEO did not disclose the perilous condition of Solyndra.

I’m glad that Republicans and Democrats alike are interested in getting to the bottom of the Solyndra story, because investigating the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds is not a partisan issue, but rather is a straightforward “good government” issue.  Every Member of Congress should want to know how this happened, and then use that information to assess whether the Department of Energy program, with its risky practice of providing substantial financial support directly to specific companies, should be continued — or should be ended in order to protect against misuse of tax dollars.

Separating Disrespect From Not-Disrespect

Given our current political climate, it is utterly predictable that even the august occasion of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress will be turned into an occasion for asinine political gamesmanship on both sides of the aisle.

According to news reports, some Republicans have said they won’t attend.  Senator Jim DeMint, for example, says probably won’t go because he’s “sick and tired” of speeches.  The Republicans also have said they won’t offer a “response” to the President’s speech, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has depicted that decision as “disrespectful” to the President and to the American people.

I think any Member of Congress who chooses not to attend a presidential address to a joint session of Congress is showing disrespect — to their position, to the head of a coequal branch of government, and to our constitutional system — and should be  voted out of office.  The fact that Republicans may disagree with what President Obama will have to say is irrelevant:  it is their job to hear what he proposes and then to decide how to respond to it, even if they believe that by sitting in the House chamber they are just acting as extras in a bit of political theater.  And any Member of Congress inevitably has sat through hundreds of speeches that have spanned the spectrum from dazzling to stupefying.  A politician who says he is “tired” of speeches is like a doctor who says he is “tired” of dealing with sick people.  If Senator DeMint really feels that way, it’s time for him to hang up his spurs.

On the other hand, I see no disrespect whatsoever in the Republicans’ decision not to have someone make a “response” to the President’s speech.  Indeed, perhaps the decision to junk the “response” will cause us to get rid of that pointless contrivance — or at least resort to it far less frequently.  How often does anyone even pay attention to a “response”?  In this instance, what people want to hear are specifics about what the President will offer as a remedy to our continuing unemployment problems, not what some Republican nobody says in a pre-programmed, platitude-laden “response.”  Indeed, I think the Republicans’ decision to waive a “response” shows respect to President Obama by allowing his speech and his proposals to take center stage.

I don’t mind strong disagreement between the parties about actual matters of policy; that is how our political system is supposed to work. The hyperbole, however, should be reserved for actual disputes about policy.  Name-calling and positioning about ancillary matters like attending a presidential address or giving a “response” makes our elected leaders look petty and small, and does nothing except increase the disdain that average Americans feel for the political classes and the decisions they make that affect us all.