"Hey, boss, I think I should be allowed to go home at 4 p.m. instead of 5. It's a matter of principle."
"I pay you to work until 5, you want to stop getting paid at 4?"
"No, I still want to get paid for working until 5 p.m. every day. But I want to stop working at 4."
I don't imagine that conversation with a hypothetical boss ending well, yet Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kans., believes that she should be allowed to knock off work at 4 p.m. and get paid as though she worked until 5, every day, for two years. And she thinks that her bosses — the people of Kansas — will congratulate her on this idea.
More specifically, Jenkins recently announced that she will "re-introduce the End the Lame Duck Act," to ensure that no Congress works throughout the entirety of the full two-year term it was elected, and paid, to serve.
See, right now, we hold elections at the beginning of November, but the winners of those elections don't get sworn in to office until late in January. That gives us three months of a so-called "lame duck" Congress — one that includes several legislators in their final three months of service who will not be returning later. Horrors.
Jenkins' solution to this is to mandate that members of Congress are not allowed to serve the final three months of a term. Three months out of a 24-month term is one-eighth of the total service for which members of the House of Representatives are getting paid. So, yes, Jenkins' proposal is precisely like the above conversation. She wants to get a full day's pay for less than a full day's work — a full term's pay for less than a full term's work.
It's a slick attempt to mooch extra pay for less work, but no matter how she spins it, Jenkins' proposal is an argument for irresponsibility and pay without work. For someone that dedicated to not doing her job, I have a better suggestion: Don't run for re-election.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., didn't enjoy working a full term in the 111th Congress either, but I don't think in his case it was due to laziness. On Face the Nation a couple Sundays ago, Graham said, "The last two weeks have been an absolutely excruciating exercise," and he singled out the DREAM Act and "don't ask, don't tell" as particularly "excruciating" votes.
I'm sure those were painful votes for Graham. I doubt that these were the sort of tactical, cynical positioning and maneuvering votes he had in mind when he first decided to run for public office back in 1992. He was 37 years old then and it's hard for me to imagine anybody at that age saying to himself, "If I work hard, within a few decades, I'll be able to shore up support from my xenophobic base by screwing over the innocent children of immigrants!" Back in 1992, Graham certainly wasn't imagining that he would some day devote years of his life to the knee-jerk opposition of every stance or idea commended by Barack Obama, who was then a little-known lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago.
But this is Graham's life now. His party's leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has explicitly stated that this is the only thing he hopes to accomplish — obstructing and opposing every piece of Obama's agenda, even when, as with the DREAM Act, that agenda is bipartisan or nonpartisan. McConnell's marching orders had nearly all of his Republican senators falling in line against the DREAM Act, against medical compensation for 9/11 first responders and against themselves since, for Graham and many other Republicans, these were proposals they had previously endorsed and argued in support of.
I can imagine that following McConnell's lead has indeed been "excruciating" for Lindsey Graham — not just for the past two weeks, but for the past two years.
The full quote from Graham bears this out, revealing how out of touch he has allowed himself to become from whatever impulses first led him to want to be a senator in the first place:
The last two weeks have been an absolutely excruciating exercise — 'don't ask, don't tell' — a controversial topic. Some say the civil rights issue of our generation, others say battlefield effectiveness was passed in the lame-duck session without one amendment being offered. The DREAM Act we've had two votes on the DREAM Act. Controversial immigration, there was no efforts to find a common ground there, passed without the ability to amend to try to make Republicans look bad with Hispanics.
There's a reason that Republican votes against the DREAM Act made those Republicans look bad with Hispanics — because those votes were designed, intended and calculated to harm Hispanics simply because they are Hispanics. Less bluntly, those votes were designed to ensure the continued enthusiastic support of the re-emergent John Birch Society, now rebranding itself as the "tea party." The Birchers are unable or unwilling to imagine that legislation like the DREAM Act might actually help one group — the children of illegal immigrants — without somehow, magically I suppose, therefore hurting Straight White Christians.
Sen. Graham knows better. He knows that the zero-sum, crabs-in-a-bucket Hobbesian jungle of the Birchers is not how the world really works. But he also knows that he needs their support lest he find himself, like Sen. Bennett in Utah, kicked to the curb as insufficiently Bircheriffic. So the Birchers "forced" Graham to cast an excruciating vote that made him look bad with Hispanics.
Just look at how Graham frames the matter there to see how far he has come, how far he has drifted, from whatever it was that made him run for office in the first place back in 1992. His discussion of the DREAM Act doesn't consider the actual effect of his vote — only whether it makes him look good or look bad.
When politics is reduced to only that it becomes an excruciating game indeed. Graham seems to have forgotten that he once dreamed of voting for or against policies based on whether or not they were effective or efficient or, yes, good for the country. He finds himself now voting based entirely on how his votes will make him look to this or that bloc of potential voters. Based on that calculation, he voted against the DREAM Act, even though he seems to realize it is a good bill that's good not just for Hispanics, but for the country as a whole.
Here, after all, is how the DREAM Act was originally introduced by it's Republican author, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah:
I rise today to introduce legislation aimed at benefitting a very special group of persons — illegal alien children who are long-term residents of the United States. This legislation, known as the "DREAM Act," would allow children who have been brought to the United States through no volition of their own the opportunity to fulfill their dreams, to secure a college degree and legal status. The purpose of the DREAM Act is to ensure that we leave no child behind, regardless of his or her legal status in the United States or their parents' illegal status.
Hatch voted against allowing a vote on his own legislation this month. After nine years of hard work, it finally had the votes to pass, but McConnell's anti-all-things-Obama-is-for strategy and the ultimatums of the Birchers led Orrin Hatch to help prevent an up-or-down vote on his own bill. He voted against himself.
I'm guessing he, too, found that vote excruciating.
The work of a senator doesn't have to be so painful. If you find yourself complaining because you're being forced to defend indefensible positions by voting on them, it might be that the problem doesn't lie with those forcing you to cast a vote and take a stand. It seems more likely that the problem lies with where you have chosen to stand and why you have chosen to stand there.
If Lindsey Graham and Orrin Hatch don't enjoy voting to screw over the children of immigrants, if they don't relish casting votes that crush the aspirations of innocent and patriotic young people for no good reason other than that they have brown skin, then they do have an alternative to complaining loudly about having to cast such votes.
They could also, you know, not vote that way.
That's also a possibility. Cast votes that don't hurt people — votes that are not motivated solely by the seething resentment and indignation of the hateful nut-jobs of the John Birch Society.
Those votes tend to be a lot less excruciating. For you and for everyone else.