By John Weeks

I have this hope – destined to be unrequited I fear – that the Real News Network will take on a baseball columnist.  If it did I could stop subscribing to the New York Times, which would substantially improve the quality of my mental state.  Every day before I go to www.nytimes.com, I resolve to move quickly and directly to the sports section.  Despite my resolve I am invariably arrested by some exceptionally reactionary, misleading or bone-headed leader that draws me haplessly to the text.

Today the headline in question was “In Defeat for Tea Party, House Passes $1.1 Trillion Budget” (16 January, page 1).  I told myself to move quickly to the article in the sports section on Alex Rodriquez and performance enhancing drugs (“PED’s”).  But as usual I succumbed to the naïve belief that the headline might lead to an article that would leave me better informed.

Well, I am better informed – there should be no exception to the rule that I avoid NYT articles if I seek peace of mind.  The article, by Jonathan Weisman, begins innocuously by informing us that the US House of Representatives passed a US$1.1 trillion spending bill by a vote of 359 to 67.  Over the last several years the House Republicans have maintained in a solid reactionary bloc, so this vote in which a majority of republicans supported a modest increase in spending could be interpreted as a set-back for the Tea Party Troglodytes (aka “Trogs”).

The article goes on to tell us, “The legislation, 1,582 pages in length and unveiled only two nights ago, embodies precisely what many House Republicans have railed against since the Tea Party movement began, a huge bill dropped in the cover of darkness and voted on before lawmakers could possibly have read it.”

In case you missed the message in this sentence (1582 pages! No one read it!!), the article gives us a not-so-pithy quotation from someone identified as the “national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots”, in which she says, “Has Congress learned nothing from the Obamacare disaster? We need members in the House and the Senate who are willing to keep their campaign promises, stand up for the people and protect Americans from Washington’s tax, borrow, spend and spend and spend mentality.”

Just objective and balanced reporting, is it not?  The Times gives each side its say, though a bit more for the Trogs than the non-Trogs.  Actually, no.  The article is reactionary nonsense, providing respectability to those politicians who want to cut spending.  Consider the phrase, “the legislation, 1582 pages in length…and voted on before lawmakers could possibility have read it”.  These words combine to make pure, unmitigated nonsense.

Why can’t the spending bill be ten pages, for example, with a simple list of how much each department and agency will received?  Congress might do that, as is done by legislatures in some countries, but if it did it would be illegal.  Only under very specific circumstances does the executive branch (aka “the president”) have the legal authority to allocate the federal budget.

The US constitution is crystal clear, “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time” (Article I, Section 9, clause 7).  For over 200 years presidents, courts and Congress itself have interpreted that phrase to mean that every expenditure must be specifically authorized in the budget bill (with the notable exception of the “national security” agencies).

That is why if the federally maintained bridge leading into Dime Box, Texas needs repair the expenditure to do so is probably specified in the budget bill.  When you put together all the Dime Boxes across this great country, it is hardly surprising that the spending bill runs to over 1500 pages.  As for reading it, of course no one does, except perhaps those in Congress whose hobby is reading the New York telephone book cover to cover (backwards).

Bailey bridge on the way to Dime Box, which is just down the road from Bastrop (a few miles from Austin, Texas – that help?).

The problem of monitoring the specific items in the spending bill falls to the Congressional Budget Office (before the bill is passed) and the Federal Accountability Office (once the bill is law).  The first of these has the responsibility to advise Congress on the impact of overall and specific spending, and the second has the task of identifying fraud and other misuse of funds.  These are things that members of Congress lack the expertise and time to do.  I suspect that relatively few voters in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania would urge their Congressional representative to spend time assessing the advisability of bridge repairs in Dime Box, Texas.

To put the point simply, the US constitution requires a long, detailed spending document that no sane member of the House of Representatives would think he/she should read in full.  The function of our elected representatives is to set the overall level of spending, allocate this to broad categories, and press for measures specific to the congressional district of each member.

As for “dropped in the cover of darkness”, that is more reactionary nonsense.  The spending document comes out of weeks of debate and deliberation by House members in committees and sub-committees.  Then, some long-suffering congressional aides race to write the bill in time for their masters & mistresses to vote on it.  The expenditure bill may be anti-social and reactionary, but that is not because of its length or that representatives fail to read every page of it.

The message of the New York Times article is crystal clear:  The Tea Party attempt to paralyze the budget process was soundly defeated.  The consequence was to leave our feckless government free to “tax, borrow, spend and spend”.

Who needs the Tea Party when we have the New York Times on the job?

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[in print 1 February, The Economics of the 1%: How mainstream economics serves the rich, obscures reality and distorts policy, order from http://www.anthempress.com/economics-of-the-1-percent]

John Weeks

John Weeks is Professor Emeritus and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development Policy and Research, and Research on Money and Finance Group at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.