Is Congress Clueless? (Or is it all of us?)

By November 16, 2018Congress, Politics
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At times it surely does seem like Congress is clueless. The obvious implication is that individual members of Congress are also clueless. Are they really? The sad, but true answer, for the most part, is yes they are. But before you get the impression that my objective here is to bash Congress and the people in it, allow me to make it a bit more personal…

When it comes to the legislative process in Congress, we’re all mostly clueless.

Here’s proof… When was the last time you made a snap judgement about a political issue based on whether it came from a Democrat or a Republican? I’d be surprised if it was as long ago as last week. You more likely did so the last time you read, watched or listened to a news report. Within the last 24 hours, right? In any case, that’s an example of when you were politically clueless.

Even if after some serious research and thought you confirm your original, snap conclusion, you were still clueless at the time. Get it? It takes research and thought to become non-clueless. Now…

Is it conceivable that a politician would make a firm, bold statement without having done appropriate research and thinking?

Hah! You likely heard such a statement within the last 24 hours as well. Probably several. And just to keep yourself grounded, call to mind the last time you made a firm, bold decision without having done appropriate research and thinking. (Me? Earlier this month on election day, I realized I had missed the Labor Commissioner choice in my review of the sample ballot. I’m still not really sure what a Labor Commissioner does and I hadn’t even heard of any of the three candidates. I was clueless, so I voted for the red one.)

As sadly creepy as all the political hot air is, it’s gets whole lot sadder and creepier when you do a deep dive into something coming up for a vote in Congress. I could choose anything as an example, and I chose the USMCA because I’m a big believer in free trade. I researched it a bit and just a little bit of that hammered home to me the fact that I’m really not sure what the hell it does and does not accomplish. I doubt very much you do either. And, YIKES, I doubt there are more than a teeny-tiny handful of U.S. Senators and Representatives who do.

The USMCA is the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which is the proposed update to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. I clearly remember the big debate about NAFTA during the 1992 presidential campaign. Ross Perot talked about the “giant sucking sound” that would come along with thousands of U.S. jobs being lost to Mexico.

My thinking at the time – and still today – is that free trade ultimately benefits everybody. It generates more competition – more economic “creative destruction” – which results in a combination of lower prices, higher quality and more innovation. Yes, of course some jobs will go away. But do you really want to sacrifice progress, along with more, new and better jobs, to preserve old, traditional, dirty, dangerous, demeaning jobs? Tractors eliminated the job of man-handling a plow hitched to a mule. Robots replace jobs that involve putting tops on bottoms every day.

Tell me that you want to leave your current job so you can go down to the farm and operate a mule-powered plow. Tell me that you want to leave your current job so you can be like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, tightening nuts onto bolts all day long.

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Free trade has massively catalyzed progress and contributed to moving those and a gazillion other awful jobs into the dustbin of history. So, I concluded back in 1992, The U.S., Mexico and Canada ought to create a free trade zone ASAP.

Let me get back to the main point… Forget about whether you agree with my free trade logic or not. That’s not the real point here. The point is that I reached a political conclusion based on my very strongly-held belief that free trade, warts and all, is the only way to go. My belief in the value of free trade, automatically made me a proponent of the proposed NAFTA agreement. That sort of logic, my friends, was and is terribly misguided.

I assumed that something called a “free trade agreement” actually meant that is was an free trade agreement.

So yes, back in ‘92 Mr. Clueless here heard “free trade agreement” and assumed that the U.S., Mexico and Canada were agreeing to eliminate all tariffs for trade among the three nations. Then along comes the Trump administration in 2016 ranting about what a terrible deal NAFTA is for the U.S. Well, I thought, it’s probably just one more example of Trump the Republican, demonizing a bill passed under the Democrat Bill Clinton administration. Can you imagine??? Republicans repudiating a bill passed by Democrats? Or conversely, Democrats repudiating a bill passed by Republicans?

Anyhow, a little voice goaded me into doing more research. What’s different about the “wonderful” new USMCA that makes it so much better than NAFTA? Well, how about some of the new agricultural rules? Under the new arrangement, Canada will give the U.S. more access to its chicken, turkey, and egg markets, and British Columbia will allow the sale of US wines at its state-owned liquor stores. Not only that, Mexico will now allow imports of certain U.S. cheeses.

Ummmmmm……. So the old “free trade agreement” did not include chicken, turkey, eggs, wine and cheese?

Surprised? I was. Oh, and in the proposed new “free trade agreement,” 40% of a car produced in Mexico needs to produced by workers making $16 an hour or more to avoid duties. So we sprinkled a bit of social justice legislation via a minimum wage provision onto our free trade bill. And we also sprinkled some goodies on the accounting lobbyists by paying them to come up with a process and of course a permanent well-paid staff to account for and police that 40%. And we also sprinkled in some goodies in for the pharmaceutical industry. Like not allowing Canada to sell generic versions of drugs into the U.S. for 10 years after patent expiration. I wonder just how much other stuff got sprinkled into NAFTA? This so-called “free trade” agreement?

I decided to keep digging to find out. I continued wading through the over 1,700 pages, with 8 Parts and 22 Chapters in the main bill plus Rules of Procedure, a Code of Conduct, and a raft of Procedural Forms, annexes, footnotes and explanations.

If you’re a glutton for punishment like me, go the the agreement itself and surf around a bit. If you click on the first of the 3 additional links on the main NAFTA page, the Rules of Procedures link, you get 4 more links. The first of those links, regarding rules for Article 1904 Binational Panel Reviews, takes you to a page with yet another 10 links, and the first of those links finally gets you to some actual text.

It’s a mind-numbing exercise. If you have a life, you’ll quit before you learn very much at all about what NAFTA actually does. I do, however, very strongly urge you poke around at least a little bit. Do that and then speculate about how much time your Representative and 2 Senators invested in reading and truly understanding this stuff. Trust me, they don’t know a damn thing about what NAFTA actually does either.

Whoops! I misspoke there. Instead of saying you or they won’t learn about what “NAFTA actually does,” I should have said what “NAFTA is actually supposed to do.”

Which brings me to an even creepier part of this story.

NAFTA set up a Free Trade Commission and a shiny new bureaucracy called The Secretariat that reports to it. The commission itself is composed of unelected officials from each of the three countries. It’s job is to hire and oversee the bureaucrats in The Secretariat. The job of The Secretariat is to interpret the treaty, impose its decisions on member nations, resolve conflicts and enforce its decisions.

Let all this sink in. Un-elected officials from the U.S., Mexico and Canada oversee a bunch of bureaucrats who interpret NAFTA’s 1,700 pages, impose their own decisions on member nations, resolve conflicts and enforce its decisions. I don’t know what NAFTA is supposed to do. You don’t know what NAFTA is supposed to do. Our Representatives and Senators don’t really know what NAFTA is supposed to do.

Then there are all these nameless, faceless bureaucrats each of whom has their own spin on what NAFTA is supposed to do. They do whatever it is they do, and who on earth knows if each of those things they do actually follows the original intent. If nobody outside of that bureaucracy really knows what it’s supposed to do, how can anybody know if they’re actually doing it?

Does that sound like free trade? Or does it sound like a great job for someone interested in lording over the trading policies of three sovereign nations?

Now let’s take the insights we got from this specific example and think about three generalized things we’ve learned.

First, ALL legislation goes through the same basic sausage making process. It’s ugly, and all sorts of related, semi-related and unrelated miscellaneous stuff gets thrown into the mix. (To return to the example for a second, NAFTA should have been called NASOFTA. Not the North American Free Trade Agreement, but the North American Sort Of Free Trade Agreement.)

Second, when a bill finally does gets passed, Democrats and Republicans praise or trash it depending on which party sponsored it. The vast majority don’t know a whole lot – if anything – about what’s in the bill or what it’s supposed to accomplish, but they praise or trash it anyway. Gotta’ support the team no matter what. And remember, I’m referring not only to members of Congress here, but also to all of us!

Third, the nameless, faceless bureaucrats take the new bill and implement it according to their own personal interpretation. Is it conceivable they might all spin it just a bit to the right or the left? What are the odds they don’t spin it just a bit to the right or the left? They’re all human, right?

So what do we conclude from all this?

We could be pessimistic and say that whole country is on track to crumble under its own weight any day now. We could be optimistic and say that sure it’s all very messy, but the system has worked astonishingly well for over 240 years and will continue to lumber along in the generally right direction.

The smart thing to do would be to dedicate ourselves to doing a whole lot more research and thinking. To gain a legitimate understanding of what our laws are intended to accomplish and what they actually accomplish. Then and only then can we base our opinion on facts instead of blind, ignorant partisanship. Then and only then will we speak out to criticize or praise.

I’m your Intentionally Vicarious host, Todd Youngblood – hoping I can actually do what I just suggested – fearful that I’ll bash the other party blindly and ignorantly yet again anyway – but still having more fun than anyone else I know.

Thanks for paying attention!

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Mary Margaret Just says:

    Once upon a time when I was a bureaucrat, working to write policy for the Health Department’s Eldercare program, we who had survived decades of working in tax-supported programs worked to keep the rules and forms as simple as possible. We were free to do that. The program was supported with state money. All legislators wanted was care management – organized access to the services people over 60 needed. We started with 5 counties, eventually covered the state. Feedback from county sites helped us make the program more useful. Near as I can tell, “start simple, grow slowly and mindfully” works pretty well.

    Eventually “came a Pharoah who knew not Joseph” to shut the program down, but I had left Oklahoma to work on my PhD by then.

  • “Un-elected officials from the U.S., Mexico and Canada oversee a bunch of bureaucrats who interpret NAFTA’s 1,700 pages, impose their own decisions on member nations, resolve conflicts and enforce its decisions. I don’t know what NAFTA is supposed to do. You don’t know what NAFTA is supposed to do. Our Representatives and Senators don’t really know what NAFTA is supposed to do.”

    This sounds like an attack on bureaucrats, but it is their job to know what NAFTA does and to do it.

    Four-star generals and PFCs are unelected, but they know or learn their jobs, and hopefully do it.

    I can’t build an interstate highway system, but unelected construction companies and equipment operators could and did.

    So we have a big government, a big economy, a big nation, a big world, and big bureaucracies to “mind the store.” We could all spend more time on seriosity over entertainment and gossip, but is that really in our nature?

    • No, not attacking bureaucrats, I’m attacking the folks in Congress who vote for legislation they don’t understand and then depending on bureaucrats to “do the right thing.”

      Also attacking most of us for supporting legislation based solely on the fact that our own party is for it. Or vice versatility opposing legislation because it was proposed by “the other team.”

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