Recipe for Inaction

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Often in politics, it's not the merits of things that matter. It's the timing.

Consider immigration reform. The Senate compromise bill that flickered to life last month and then just as suddenly died is the kind of measure that ought to be easily revived. It appeared to have more than 60 votes during its brief half-life, and after balking at the idea a few weeks ago, even Democratic Leader Harry Reid has come around to hinting that he might now consider amendments to the measure.

Still, that doesn't mean it will happen. A lot has been written in the last 48 hours about how Monday's rallies won't force Washington's hand. I'm not sure that's right, but I am certain that going into the weekend, Democratic party leaders had begun to say in private that they will have more leverage to alter the more conservative House version of the immigration bill after the fall elections. Even if the Democrats don't take back the House, they argue, the party will have picked up more seats in the chamber that produced the restrictive bill, so why act now? This week's rallies could moderate that view with some Democrats, but the logic of waiting could — and almost certainly will — be applied to every elective piece of legislation Congress will consider this year.

Red Ink Reform

If you like watching a car rust, you'll love entitlement reform. Even the news this week that the Medicare program will go broke in 2018 — two years sooner than expected — was barely worth a blip in the papers. Of course, it's a little awkward for Congress and the White House to react too dramatically to this news, since they teamed up just a few years ago to add a largely unfunded drug benefit to the program.

Still, when it comes to fiscal matters, Washington operates according to what one former Clinton official recently called "just-in-time politics." That means the lawmakers will get around to making a fix only in the nick of time. This approach has worked well enough in the past to see us through; it may not serve our interests in world powered by a fast-changing, far more competitive, globalized economy. But a deeply divided Washington, which has not enacted a major reform of any government program in a decade, is gradually losing the knowledge and experience of how to forge compromises that make big reforms possible. Which means that when a crisis — be it fiscal, demographic or constitutional — finally descends on us, we will be drawing on weak muscles and a thin skill set to address the problem.


Finally, if you've been wondering what happened to that effort by moderate Republicans this spring to find a middle ground between the Bush officials who secretly created a extra-legal wiretapping operation after 9/11 and Democrats who were so angry about it, wonder no more. A hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week made it pretty clear that none of the various compromise proposals have sufficient votes to pass, even out of the committee. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's plan to ask a special panel of judges to review the law isn't going anywhere. And Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine's proposal to create a special subcommittee to review the Administration's work in this super-secret area every 45 days isn't selling well either. Which means nothing is really happening. And since neither party — including Democrats — will take the political risk of cutting off a program designed to catch terrorists, it continues unregulated. Which is plenty fine with the White House.

When would the time for action be right? If and when it is discovered that the Administration went even further in its warrantless wiretapping than it has admitted or implied. Then, it's a good bet, lawmakers will act. But that time has not yet come.