2013 Favs: Playing Chicken

I am one of the lucky ones.

My paycheck does not stop because the feds are playing chicken with the future of this country.

You see, I am an elected official, which means that I am exempt from all sorts of consequences for the things I do. I could lock up the Oklahoma budget (which I vote against quite frequently, btw) and put tens of thousands of people out of work. Then, I could re-write the laws so they couldn’t get unemployment compensation and reduce the monies going to our schools/roads/police/hospitals/etc to make up the shortfall, and …

Nothing would happen to me.

My paycheck would keep on coming.

In fact, a lot of people would call me a hero.

I know all about playing legislative chicken with the budget. I’ve played it — on both sides.

I have been a Democrat in a Democratic majority government in which we were trying our best to pass a budget over the heads of recalcitrant Republicans who were doing their best to lock it up.

I have been a Democrat in a majority Republican government in which my side of the fight was trying to lock the danged budget up and the Republicans were fighting to pass it.

Ho-hum and hidey-ho. I’ve done it all.

And I can tell you that it is never about the issues.

I repeat: It is NEVER about the issues.

Part of the legislative negotiating process is to play chicken.

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Do you remember chicken? It’s a throw-back to the 1950s. Young men would gather out on a deserted stretch of highway with their souped-up jalopies and line them up facing one another. Then they’d floor the things and drive straight at one another at max speed. The first one to veer off lost. That’s playing chicken.

The legislative version of chicken is taking some piece of legislation that would harm millions of people and whose failure would cause immeasurable suffering and hold it hostage, thereby forcing someone else to compromise on a second issue. Legislative chicken surpasses the old Highway 9 Chicken of the 1950s in terms of the carnage it can wreak and the gravity of what it is trying to accomplish.

There is also another difference. Highway 9 Chicken carries the possibility that two people might kill themselves. With Legislative Chicken the players themselves are always — always — exempt from the harm they may do, but the price to literally millions of innocent bystanders can be mind boggling.

Let’s look at the boys and girls in Washington and this dirty little game they are playing with our country as a for-instance.

What’s at stake in their gamesmanship is significantly more than the wreckage of two souped up jalopies and the death of two young men.

On the one hand, we have the Affordable Health Care Act and all that it means, including the hyper funding for abortion and the lives of millions of babies, and the HHS Mandate and its blatant attack on the First Amendment.

On the other hand, we have the lives of millions of Americans and their ability to keep roofs over their heads and food on their tables, PLUS the entire American economy and the fear of another free fall like the one in 2008, PLUS the fear of literally billions of people around the globe who are watching Big Daddy, who they rely on for their security, play this game of Legislative Chicken.

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That’s a lot at stake. Do the players need nerves of steel to do this? Maybe. But I know from experience that they are also enjoying it. If you didn’t like football, despite its blows and injuries, you wouldn’t play football. It’s the same with lawmakers everywhere. We are all fit for these battles and in ways that nobody who wasn’t as nutty as we are could ever understand, we get off on them.

That’s not a pretty fact. But it is a fact.

One other major difference between Legislative Chicken and Highway 9 Chicken is that the two young men driving those jalopies are the only ones with skin in the game. Their chicken is real chicken, since they can lose it all. Elected officials, on the other hand, are exempt from whatever havoc they wreak. No matter who pays what for their shenanigans, the one thing everybody knows is that the payers will not be them.

So, our elected officials’ nerves of steel are mostly bombast combined with the crappola they tell themselves about the nobility of what they are doing.

Legislative chicken is a team sport. And it’s a rough one. It can, and often does, provide the minority in legislative settings with a voice that also provides much needed balance to government. It is not always a bad thing. It is a necessary and useful device.

However, it always has the potential to become a kind of drug. Elected officials get so inured to constant crises that they have trouble with normal life, which seems flat to them. They become crisis junkies of the worst sort. Combine that with a ruthless drive for power at any cost in these elected officials — who were beamed into office on a beam of special interest money and don’t really have a clue what they’re doing there in the first place — and you have a recipe for disaster.

The thing which has made this nation tick for over 200 years is the essential decency of its people, which fed upstream to give us elected officials who were also essentially decent. No matter their various scandals and failures, the sum total of American governance has always been rooted in a belief in and concern for this country.

No more.

We’re electing people who don’t belong in office. I can’t say it any other way. We are electing people who don’t belong in office.

They are being sold to us by big-time money machines who control their every act once they are in office and they don’t care about this country. 

Both sides in this present shutdown controversy are lying out every bodily orifice they possess about the other side. According to each of them, the other side is entirely to blame. They are both lying. That is the only truth there is to their behavior.

I am not going to take a side in this current situation because I’ve come to the conclusion that neither side is the side of the American people.

As an American people myself, that is the only side that I’m on.

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Speaking Swahili in Oklahoma

I was elected to public office for the first time in 1980; the same year John Lennon was murdered and the Moral Majority became a major player in American politics. The country was reeling from the capture of our citizens at the American Embassy in Iran. There were long lines to buy gasoline and interest for a new car could easily cost 15% for someone with good credit. The Cold War and its mind-numbing threat of universal nuclear annihilation hung like the sword of Damocles over all of us.

These were not halcyon days. There was trouble in the world then, as now. But America was still the manufacturing power of the world. There were jobs, good jobs, that could support a family, and a college education was still affordable without living in penal servitude to student loans for the rest of your life.

The biggest difference for me personally between then and now is the difference in the people I encounter on my job as a legislator. Back then, if I wanted to convince a fellow legislator to vote either for or against a piece of legislation, I would talk to them about how the legislation would affect the people of Oklahoma. If I could convince the legislator that the bill in question would hurt people, he or she would vote against it. If they believed it would help people, they would vote for it.

If I try to talk to my colleagues today about how a piece of legislation will affect the people of the state, they look at me as if I was speaking Swahili. Once in a while one of them will turn his head away and not look me in the face, but that’s as close as you can come with today’s politicians to get them to consider how the votes they cast affect the people they represent.

In today’s politics, the only way to persuade a legislator to change their vote is to talk to them about how it will affect their chances of re-election, or how some special interest group feels about the bill. I won’t say that is the only thing they care about, but it is the only thing that will motivate them to change their actions. Even that falls to the way side when party loyalty is in play. Nothing in today’s political world is allowed to trump doing what your party tells you to do.

As with all blanket statements concerning people, there are exceptions. I know a small number of legislators in both parties who will step out and cast their votes based on the way a piece of legislation will affect the people they represent. Some of these people are women, some are men. The Republicans and Democrats in this group are about evenly divided.

It hurts me to say this but it is true; you are just as likely to find a pro-choice politician who will bravely stand up for what they believe as you will one who is pro-life.

This doesn’t happen because all elected officials are evil. A small number of the people I work with are craven opportunists who genuinely do not care about anyone or anything except their own ambitions. But the vast majority of them are good people who were put in office by political machines who recruited them to run, gave them their campaign funds, told them what their positions were based on polls and their political party‘s sell-lines, put out their campaign ads and organized their victory parties.

These elected officials are not representatives of the people in their districts. They are operatives for political parties who have themselves become consortiums of special interests.

They are so utterly out of their depth once they get into office that they fall for every bit of manipulation and flattery (and there is an endless supply of both for the winner in any campaign for public office) that comes their way. They are confused, overwhelmed and, like most people who are in over their heads and trying to hide it, easily angered and given to pomposity.

Most of them signed up to run for office because they had some notion that they could “make a difference” or because of vague beliefs about culture war issues. But by the time they’ve been processed and groomed into a winning candidate, they’ve drunk so much political kool-aid that they think people who talk to them about things like the common good and what’s best for ordinary people are naive lightweights.

A “tough” vote in this legislative environment is not a vote where the legislator is trying to figure out what is the right thing to do. A “tough” vote is one that catches him or her between two competing special interests. The toughest “tough” votes are the ones where they get caught between the power brokers who own them and the lies they told their constituents.

Legislators who are faced with one of these toughest of the “tough” votes tend to become fearful, petulant, bitter and easily enraged.

After that, anyone who tries to convince them that they need to cast their votes on what will be best for the people they represent would be just as effective if they really were speaking Swahili.

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