27 June 2006

Hail to the Chief

The Pneumatic Applauding Machine

It's sometime before eleven in the morning and I'm sitting in a red velvet chair in a ballroom in the George Washington Marriott, 1331 Pennsylvania, down the hall from the annual meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I'm sitting in a field of dark suits dotted with blouses, waiting for the President of the United States.

The gold braid on the top of the chairs is covered in a clear plastic tube to prevent rubbing. There are velvet ropes, and three sets of double doors, and velvet curtains behind the stage. There are chandeliers, but they've been recessed and cut down because of the height of the ceiling, and art deco wall sconces that contain Capitol Police or light fixtures. Outside is a continental buffet dressed in silver and white linen, a metal detector, a police checkpoint, caterers, Secret Service, a pile of confiscated umbrellas underneath a coffee table, thirty pounds of precut cantaloupe. Behind the podium hangs the Manhattan Institute logo in maroon and white.

I'm with one other intern, in whose purse I've stored, without a hint of shame, two blueberry muffins and a croissant wrapped in napkins. She's economics and history at Oberlin, but all of her friends are graphic designers. She looks at the cheap accents on the cut-off chandaliers. "It's kind of art deco," she says to me. "Like really fake art deco."

Behind us are four more Cato fellows, Cato being a public policy think tank, which as you know is an aquarium stocked with professors instead of carp. They're providing a kind of whispered Greek chorus to the entire event - currently to the tune of Roman consuls, plebian veto power, and Caligula's madness. The President is here on behalf of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research - another aquarium - to push the line item veto. The room isn't quite full, and everyone is told to move up and fill the gaps. There are fish wholesalers - Brookings, Heritage, AEI - congressional staffers, a bank of reserved chairs up front for congressmen and senators, several television camera crews. Photographers are taking pictures of the empty stage to get the exposure right.

Meanwhile, a Secret Service man does a microphone check, though whether it's for sound or bombs is difficult to tell. There are, if my personal history with potboiler novels can be believed, zip-bags cradling hidden and restful Uzi submachine guns, and snipers on the roof of the hotel, and contingency plans. The man's suitcoat, I decide, has been tailored loose to hide the bulge of a shoulder holster.

Suddenly, the doors open and a phalanx of reporters and cameramen doubletime it in, circling around to the aisles, baggy pleated khakis, rumpled polo shirts, acting as a kind of advance guard for the notables, who are gladhanding the front three rows. I see the back of McCain's head. "Nobody in Washington can dress," my companion says, and sighs.

And then, Bush sneaks in behind the Manhattan Institute speaker, who gives an introduction while he looks on. There is a standing ovation. He steps up, thanks the host, thanks the Institute, the board of directors, contributors. His drawl is laid on thick this morning, much thicker than in his national speeches.

"It's a flag amendment for the fiscal conservatives," my boss had said, in the cab. The line item veto was passed under Clinton and then declared unconstitutional in 1996. The current incarnation isn't really a line item veto at all, since to allow the president to change laws himself would effectively transfer Congressional power to the executive branch - to pass constitutional muster, the president, instead of being able to veto items in the bill line by line, redlines elements he doesn't like and sends them back to Congress, where a simple majority can knock them off.

It's touted as a way to reduce earmarks and unnecessary discretionary spending. As such it's one of a number of ways election-year Republican congressmen are scrambling to renew their credentials as the party of smaller government in the face of the most profligately spendthrift president in American history, a vast and yawning deficit, and emergency wartime appropriations to keep our various armed expeditions in the field. Last week's meeting of the Fiscal Action Team, which saw Republican staffers throwing out budget process reform amendments with a peculiar kind of desperation, is symptomatic - of one, a staffer said: "My Senator came into the office after reading this one and said, 'I'm no longer ashamed to call myself a Republican. I feel clean.'"

As with any other event in Washington, where applause is a speech act, the clapping here is strategic. You chart political standing by intensity and duration, by who and where, the northwest corner of the room being the most steadfast in their support. Cato, southeast and in the last row, keeps hands folded quietly. A woman across the aisle in cream and black pinstripes who I think I recognize as Heritage from the Action Team meeting almost throws her elbows out at one point when she claps in the middle of a Social Security bit that wasn't an applause line, the applause lines being telegraphed by lean and volume. It continues stridently, by sheer force of will, for three or four seconds until it's picked up by the northwest.

Beside the podium, a blocky lady in Southern blonde curls signs along for the benefit of the crowd, her face curled in imitation of the President, her hands, if possible, drawling Texan.

Bush talks resolve on the War on Terror, talks mandatory program reform, talks budget process reform, talks lower taxes leading to bigger economy and higher Treasury revenues, talks deficit reduced in half by 2009.

It's worth noting: the deficit, not the debt, is being reduced; the debt, which will continue to increase, is effectively a delayed tax, which renders today's cuts illusory; paradoxically, the official Republican line is that they have and will continue to be the party of smaller government - see Tom "The Hammer" DeLay's farewell speech - even as every office knows that's disingenuous at best.

He gets, after the preliminaries and the thanks, to line item veto. He talks constitutional merit, mentions its effect at the state level, says it's an important tool for fiscal restraint, says we should be more careful in spending the citizens' money. Says we owe it to the American people. Closes on a big applause line.

"Hail to the Chief" plays to a standing ovation and he ducks out behind curtains. Secret Service spring into action. Everybody stays standing.

Rising, the four Cato fellows talk briefly.

"It still appropriates the power of Congress, the veto supersedes the way you make a bill into -"

"The current one's actually looks to be pretty good, constitutionally."

"Got three federal judges to sign off on it, one of whom voted against it in '96."

"It's not actually a genuine line item veto, it's more a - "

"The question's not constitutionality, it's effectiveness. Will this actually reduce spending?"

"You grew up in a line item veto state, didn't you?"

"I did."

"It's interesting he singled out [Senator], since his is one of the weakest - but in states where it's been implemented, it's not used as a tool for fiscal restraint at all."

"It's a political cudgel - toe the line, or we'll redline your district's projects and not ours."

"You use it on people you have grudges against."

"I've run regressions, looked at the data comparatively at the state level and there's no - in a statistically robust sense - there's no significant effect on spending - the amount of spending."

"Anyway, - what is it, for approval, two thirds or - ?"

"Simple majority."

"Simple majority, right. That's the question. Whether you'll actually get that vote in this Congress."

"In any Congress. District appropriations get you elected."

"Targeting these things has been already tried - look at Jeff Flake's amendments to strip earmarks. All of those were defeated by at least two thirds."

"Went down in flames."

"Not even close to even a simple majority."

"To be fair, the vote is slightly different, which might change it. Voting against earmarks that have already been approved is one thing; voting for veto is just a little different, qualitatively."



"It's purely symbolic."

"Flag amendment."

"Gay marriage ban."

"It won't change a thing."

"Do you think those Secret Service guys at the door will let us out yet, or what?"

"I don't know. Has Elvis left the building?"

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