It's getting harder and harder to ignore the meaningless posturing of politicians around election season. In the past I was able to shrug it off as simply the silly season to be endured every time we neared the first Tuesday in November. But this year, with the White House and control of Congress up for grabs and an electorate made unpredictable by a bad economy, it seems to have reached new heights. The political jockeying for position has gone from silly and meaningless to a dangerous game of chicken that threatens to weaken our already ailing economy and damage our international image as a superpower in control of its destiny.
Take last month's dustup over the Highway Trust Fund. After warning for the last three years that the fund was headed for trouble unless there was some reform, Transportation Sec. Mary Peters announced in early September that time was up and the fund would be bankrupt by the end of the month unless Congress acted. In practical terms, that would mean the Highway Fund wouldn't be able to make reimbursements to states for infrastructure work already approved and underway. Sec. Peters urged the Senate to pass a measure already introduced and passed by House Democrats to transfer $8 billion from general Treasury funds to the Highway Trust Fund to keep it solvent. The President, she said, had agreed to sign the bill as soon as it made its way to his desk.
Instead of acknowledging a fiscal crisis in the making, Senate Republicans saw an opportunity for partisan image-building before they headed home for elections. Ignoring Congress' role in looting the highway fund for years with earmarks and pet construction projects in home districts, they announced their opposition to the plan, labeling the transfer as a fiscal gimmick and a dangerous precedent. Then, with sound bites in place for election ads decrying the opposition's fiscal shortcomings, they took the step everyone knew from the start was inevitable — they voted to approve the transfer and sent the bill on to the President.
The House vote to kill an ongoing cross-border trucking demonstration provides an even more cynical example of political posturing. The demonstration addresses long-delayed implementation of NAFTA requirements to expand international access to Mexican and American truckers. In a 395 to 18 vote, Congress approved a bill ending the demonstration. House Democrats and Republicans alike knew the bill had no chance of even being introduced in the Senate, but now they could go home and run for re-election having taken a stand against the unpopular trade agreement, as meaningless as that stand might have been.
Fortunately, we're nearing the end of the election season. It will be over in a month, and then we just have to get through a lame duck presidency and Congress before our elected officials get back to real work. It's just too bad that the economy, the world and our lives don't stop while they're caught up jockeying for political advantage. And politicians, who never miss an opportunity when on the stump to remind us that they've stepped up to perform public service, wonder why they're often held in such low regard.
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