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We’ve Got the ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ Blues
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We’ve Got the ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ Blues

They just don't craft legislation like they used to.


Then-Sen. Joe Biden was sworn in in 1973, the same week that Schoolhouse Rock debuted.

I bring this up for a couple reasons.

First, Schoolhouse Rock was awesome. If you have little kids, I highly recommend introducing them to it. It’s funny, smart, educational, and at times deeply patriotic. It legitimately makes me sad that you probably couldn’t make the history episodes today. One warning: It’s also a bottomless pit of earworms. So be prepared to walk around singing, “conjunction junction, what’s your function?” or “interjections (hey!) show excitement (yow!) or emotion (ouch!).”

Second, at least in my mind, it’s a good way to illustrate that Joe Biden has been involved in politics for a very long time. Schoolhouse Rock is one of those things I associate with my early childhood, along with Looney Tunes, Letterman (the spelling superhero, not the late-night usurper), and subterranean shovel fighting for my survival (it’s a long story). But maybe I’m alone on this. So if it doesn’t make you appreciate the yawning chasm of time between now and then, consider this: 1973 is as far away from today—48 years if my crack research team is right—as 1925 is from 1973. You know the expression, “best invention since sliced bread?” Well, sliced bread was invented in 1928. In 1973, Bonanza was still on the air, Lon Chaney and Bruce Lee died, The Princess Bride hit bookstores (and bookstores were still quite a thing), and the average cost of a new home was $32,000.

Now, I’ve written a bunch about Biden over the last week: two G-Files and a syndicated column. So, I don’t need to repeat points I’ve already made. But it’s worth noting that over those 48 years, Biden was a senator for six terms. Dan Harmon, creator of Community and Rick and Morty, was born the same day Biden was sworn in. And until Harmon was 36 years old, he never knew a day when Joe Biden wasn’t a senator. Then Biden became vice president, serving for eight years. Oh, and he was first elected as county councilman in 1970 at the age of 26. So, I think I’m on safe ground when I say Biden has a lot of political and government experience.

And yet he seems not to know how a lot of things work, or even how they’re supposed to work. Take, for example, his claim that his proposed $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” proposal won’t cost anything because it will be “paid for.” This claim has no corollary in real life. Imagine I want to add a cigar lounge to my house—and I do—and the contractor says it will cost $100,000. My wife says it’s a bad idea and we can’t afford it. Putting aside her wrongness on the policy question, I won’t win the financial argument by saying, “Look, if we sell our kidneys and our wedding rings to pay for it, it won’t cost anything.” Similarly, despite my strong desire to peacefully acquire Greenland, I don’t think buying it would be cost-free if we raised taxes on left-handed Americans—or billionaires—to cover the purchase price.

Now, I get it. They’re claiming it’s cost-free according to the arcane rules of reconciliation. If you raise taxes in equal amount to what you spend, it doesn’t—on paper—add to the debt and therefore doesn’t “cost” anything. I, for one, don’t buy that gimmickry. And neither do the Democrats—which is why they won’t let the plan be scored by the Congressional Budget Office. But even if the math works out, this is an insane way of looking at things. To paraphrase Dickens, if that’s what the budget rules say, then the budget rules are an ass. We’ve borrowed $6 trillion since the pandemic began. If you max out your credit card, you can make a case that cutting back on expenses, working extra hours, scrounging underneath the couch cushions, and spending less at the dog track makes sense—to pay down your debt. But doing all that to buy the full line of Franklin Mint Star Trek plates doesn’t make sense.

Yeah, yeah, we have an infrastructure “crisis.” I don’t really buy that. But sure, you can make the case for some traditional infrastructure. What’s the case for an additional $3.5 trillion in spending on new entitlements and programs? That’s a rhetorical question, because A) I don’t think there is a good case for it, and B) I don’t want to talk about budget stuff anymore.

I want to get back to Schoolhouse Rock.

Watch the instructional video on how laws get made, “I’m Just a Bill.”

Well I got this far. When I started, I wasn’t even a bill, I was just an idea. Some folks back home decided they wanted a law passed, so they called their local Congressman and he said, “You’re right, there oughta be a law.” Then he sat down and wrote me out and introduced me to Congress. And I became a bill, and I’ll remain a bill until they decide to make me a law.

This was literally my introduction to how laws get made (I learned about amendments later). The only problem is, it’s not really how laws get made anymore. Oh, sure, some are made that way. But for the most part, congressional leaders, i.e. the speaker, decide behind closed doors what the legislation should be and then instruct the majority how to vote. On Sunday, Nancy Pelosi told George Stephanopoulos, “I’m never bringing a bill to the floor that doesn’t have the votes.”

Justin Amash’s response was exactly right:

This is precisely what’s wrong with Congress. Congress is supposed to be a place where you discover outcomes. It’s not supposed to be a place where a few people get in a room, craft legislation and then foist it on everyone else and say, hey, this is what you—this is what you’re going to take. Take it or leave it, and if you’re not with us, then you’re against us and we’re in, you know, we’re in gridlock.

This has increasingly been the norm on major legislation for a while, under both parties, and it’s corrupting our politics.

Reconciliation is a perfect distillation of the dynamic. The normal rules—already little more than a speedbump—are suspended. Congress votes on a topline number and then the committees are ordered to write legislation that complies with that number.  

Legislation is supposed to bubble up through committees that call witnesses who provide facts and arguments. Representatives and senators are supposed to debate, haggle, and consider tradeoffs. It’s not science per se, but there’s supposed to be a scientific spirit to it. Committees are supposed to discover the best policies by kicking the tires on ideas. Ideally, these ideas already went through a similar process. Oregon comes up with an idea for a public policy. It works its way up through the state legislature, becomes a law, and if successful, someone in Congress says, “We should consider doing this at the national level.” Then people argue about that. Maybe what’s good for Oregon isn’t good for Texas—or vice versa. The legislative process is by definition not the common law process. But in the Anglo-American tradition, the legislative process is at least supposed to look a bit like the common law process (I bring this up for a sidebar!).

The way the Democrats have handled infrastructure—and $1.9 trillion in COVID relief earlier this year—is to come up with the numbers first and then backfill the spending to fit them. Unless you’re on a game show or have a gift certificate that’s about to expire, no one does this in real life. No one says, “I’ve got $1,000 to spend at the Kroger, so I gotta buy three crates of fish sticks I don’t need to hit my target.” 

Now the progressives obviously don’t see it this way. Bernie Sanders actually thinks he’s already compromised by dropping his ask from $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion. Think about that for a second. If I say you should give me $1 million, but I’m going to be reasonable and settle for $500,000, that’s only reasonable if I think I had a right to the million in the first place. If I don’t, that’s hucksterism or gaslighting.

I know I keep harping on this point, but we don’t have a parliamentary system. In a parliamentary system, the party in power gets what it wants so long as it sticks together. You can believe that’s a better system. Lots of people do. But it’s not the system we have. And yet presidential candidates campaign by vowing they will do things “on day one” that they simply can’t (seize the guns, ban Muslims or fossil fuels or fossil fueled Muslims, whatever). Congressional majorities think they are entitled to do as they please. We’re simply not set up for that kind of thing. But since politicians campaign as if we are, voters think we are.

Which brings me back to Biden. As I wrote in my column, Biden had a golden opportunity to be a normal—and successful—president. First of all, he already got $1.9 trillion in spending on COVID relief passed. Then he got 19 Republican senators to agree on a traditional infrastructure deal. He could have declared victory, told progressives to count their blessings, and called it a day. Instead, he announced that the bipartisan deal was predicated on giving progressives another $3.5 trillion to play with. He thinks he can have a new New Deal because that’s what he or the Democrats want. But the original New Deal was only possible because FDR had the votes in Congress to spare. Biden doesn’t. When you have supermajorities in both chambers of Congress and public opinion behind you, it’s easy to govern like you’re a prime minister. But when you don’t have such things, you need to deal with reality. Traditionally, presidents—including FDR and LBJ—compromised with reality, abandoning wishlists in favor of half-loaves. Biden is rejecting this in favor of steamrolling a partisan agenda based on blind party and personal loyalty. As someone close to the president told Mike Allen, “His view is: ‘You’re Democrats, and you’re with your president or you’re not.’”

Now, here’s the thing. It still might work. But he’ll leave things worse off as a result. And I don’t just mean spending borrowed money like a pimp with a week left to live. He’s contributing to the dysfunctional dynamic that got us here. Because at some point, Republicans will be back in charge, and—just like they did under Trump—they will do the exact same thing Democrats are doing now: Impose their will without regard to fiscal and political realities. At least Trump had the excuse of not knowing or caring about how government is supposed to work. Biden is the guy who literally campaigned on restoring norms, making democracy work, and bringing the country together.

And after a half-century of being a political creature, he can’t pretend he doesn’t know this is not how it’s supposed to work.

P.S. I am doing an event Thursday at 12:45 p.m. on the future of conservatism. It’s a Zoom speech to the Federalist Society at Harvard Law, but the meeting is open to the public.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.