Two pieces of news out of the Senate today showed both the extreme fragility and enduring strength of the institutions of governance that, for the most part, have served the United States so well for 217 years now: a constitutional amendment to limit free expression by giving Congress the power to outlaw flag burning failed by one vote, and Minority Leader Harry Reid announced that he and Senate Democrats would block the implementation of a previously approved congressional pay raise until the body votes to increase the minimum wage, which hasn't risen since 1997.
Let's do the proposed flag burning amendment, perhaps better known as the Idolatry Act, first. In the Washington Post today, Dana Millbank captured just how mind-bendingly stupid this whole "debate" has been:
The Citizens Flag Alliance, a group pushing for the Senate this week to pass a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, just reported an alarming, 33 percent increase in the number of flag-desecration incidents this year.
The number has increased to four, from three.
"I think it's important to focus on the basic fact that the text of the First Amendment, the text of the Constitution, the text of the Bill of Rights is not involved," [PA Senator Arlen] Specter argued. The Judiciary Committee chairman did not explain how he could add 17 words to the Constitution without altering its text.
Fortunately, the Senate will have plenty of time to discuss that matter. The chamber has scheduled up to four days of debate on the flag-burning amendment this week. If that formula -- one day of Senate debate for each incident of flag burning this year -- were to be applied to other matters, the Senate would need to schedule 12 days of debate to contemplate the number of years before Medicare goes broke, 335 days of debate for each service member killed in Iraq this year and 11 million days of debate on the estimated number of illegal immigrants in the country.
Unfortunately, the Senate has only 49 days left on its legislative calendar for the year.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) saw the calculus somewhat differently.
"They say that flag burning is a rare occurrence; it is not that rare," he told the chamber. An aide hoisted a large blue poster detailing 17 incidents of flag desecration over three years. Hatch, citing "an ongoing offense against common decency," read them all. "That's just mentioning some that we know of; there's a lot more than that, I'm sure," he said.
Never mind that, in most cases, the perpetrators could be prosecuted for theft or vandalism. For Hatch, this was sufficient evidence of the need for an amendment. "Now, I have to tell you," he vouched, "the American people are aggrieved."
Well, not so much. Take a look at any survey of what voters are concerned about. I defy you to find any sentiment about this "issue"--especially when one considers that, as Millbank notes, laws already on the books can punish most acts of flag desecration. (Not to mention that I doubt any jury out there would punish anyone who kicked the shit out of a flag-burner, presuming any of the three to four desecrations per year were witnessed.) While the case can be made that the country has entered an age of "post-material politics," I don't think we're at a point where we can afford to spend all the time and resources already wasted on this non-problem. Hell, we might be better off if the Senate scheduled days of debate on "Ultraviolet" vs. "Aeon Flux".
(Let the record note that I haven't seen either movie, nor read the comics or whatever they're based on. It's just that from the ads, they seemed kind of the same thing.)
As for the minimum wage/congressional pay raise gambit, it's theatrics--but so is the flag-burning nonsense, the gay marriage farce, and most everything else the congressional Republicans push, and at least a minimum wage increase would help people. A flag-burning law, in addition to the potential damage we would invite by writing limitations on free expression for the first time, would just put the U.S. into a dismal category with Iran, China and Cuba--the only three nations that have such laws on their books. (Current, that is; Saddam-era Iraq and Nazi Germany were also in that group.) I hope all Americans, regardless of their politics, would agree we're better than that.
Reid and the Senate Dems are offering a very clear choice about priorities, and doing it with the attention-getting flair they haven't shown since forcing the Senate into closed session last fall over Pat Roberts' endless toadying on the issue of pre-Iraq War intelligence. For the first time I can remember, the leadership seems to grasp that politics is about contrast and drama:
"Congress is going to have earn its raise by putting American workers first: A raise for workers before a raise for Congress," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Democrats in the House and Senate want the $5.15-per-hour federal minimum wage, in place since 1997, to rise in 70-cent increments to $7.25 by January 1, 2009.
In arguing for the minimum-wage increase, Democrats are emphasizing that salaries for members of Congress have risen $31,600 during the time the minimum wage has been frozen.
They complain that rising costs for gasoline, utilities, education and food have taken a chunk out of minimum-wage paychecks, which sometimes have to support entire families.
Republicans in Congress have blocked numerous attempts to raise the minimum wage, saying it would backfire by causing small businesses to hire fewer entry-level workers.
Which is, to put it briefly, crap: here in New York, where we've raised the wage in stages over the past two years, the most affected economic sectors have enjoyed faster job growth than the overall average. If the debate brings that point into the public awareness, we're doubly ahead.