In his brief campaign for the presidency, Rick Perry uttered quite a bit of nonsense. Between the numerous debate gaffes, the self-contradiction of his hard-money populism, and, in his desperate endgame, the obscene groping for the support of social conservatives, Texas Rick was an inestimable source of I-winced-so-hard-I-laughed-style humor. I thought he was just as entertaining as Steve Carell’s character on The Office…so long as I could avoid stumbling over a grim reminder that Mr. Perry was running for real-life leader of the free world, not running a paper company in an NBC sitcom.
One of the outlandish policy ideas that never failed to elicit a chuckle from me was Mr. Perry’s notion of converting Congress into a “part-time” legislature that worked only half the hours that it currently puts in. It struck me as nutty; how would it be an improvement for lawmakers to split their specialization with something other than lawmaking? How would the balance of power between our governing branches hold up if a half-time legislature had to battle with a full-time executive? And who in their right mind would want less effort out of Congress instead of more?
However, as I watched the president’s recent State of the Union, I had a change of heart on Perry’s proposal. The height of the inanity came at the 48th minute, when President Obama exhorted Congress with this gem:
“Send me a bill that bans insider trading by members of Congress; I will sign it tomorrow!”
Congress erupted in applause after this line. For one shining, televised moment, the president, vice president, and every legislator and dignitary in attendance decided to collectively pretend that insider trading by Congress was legal.
It isn’t, of course, and there is not very much ambiguity on the subject either. There are no special loopholes for legislators, no exemptions on the books that grant them immunity from SEC prosecution. Congressmen are prohibited from trading on material, non-public information to the same extent as, say, journalists or lawyers, as established by section 10b of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 and clarified by the Supreme Court case of United States v. O’Hagan.
This hasn’t prevented both the House and Senate from rushing such bills through their respective chambers in the past few days. The last time Congress passed a full budget was April of 2009, but Washington imagines its time is best spent on passing redundant laws.
To some degree, this is just the normal modus operandi of D.C. Every once in a while, some issue comes along that seizes public attention in such a way that government is forced to move for motion’s sake. The difference is that this is an election year. Motion for motion’s sake is the default, not the occasional lapse. Every elected official is in an extended defensive crouch, unwilling to give their November competitors any potential ammunition, any evidence that, rightly or wrongly, might make them disagreeable to their constituents. I’d give even money that in the next nine months, Congress will accomplish nothing of import, choosing to declare their affection for motherhood and apple pie rather than tackle a pressing issue.
Broken clocks are right twice a day. Maybe in his self-immolating run at a national office, Perry stumbled across an unconventional idea that deserves consideration: make Congress part-time, and send those up for re-election home until November. At the rate this year is going, we wouldn’t miss them.