While the national spotlight is on the looming Fiscal Cliff and whether the country will go over it, plunging into the roaring waters below -- cue scary music -- the usual high-rollers (with your money, Dear Taxpayer) have seen their chance. They've put together the mother of all log-rolling, patronage-dispensing, pork-distributing appropriation bills, and are about to sneak it through the Senate while the country's attention is elsewhere.
What a grab bag of a bill, with the emphasis on grab. By the time you read this, the whole list of goodies may have received the Senate Seal of Approval, which comes to resemble a rubber stamp. Though it's hard to imagine the Republican-dominated House going meekly along. The bill certainly follows the order of priorities our president has favored for years now: spend first, think later -- if at all. And set 'em up again. It's all on the house, or rather the Senate.
Naturally, this grab is called an Emergency Relief Bill, purportedly for the benefit of victims of Hurricane Sandy, although it might be more accurately described as the Sandy Claus Bill. For any relation between the devastation Sandy caused and the long list of this bill's beneficiaries may be only coincidental. For example: Fisheries in Alaska get $150 million in federal largesse. Who knew Sandy got that far west?
The Justice Department and Homeland Security get $8 million to beef up their motor pools and generally supplement their TO&Es -- tables of organization, equipment and spoils. (It's an ill hurricane that blows no good.)
There's a couple of million in the bill for a new roof on Washington's sad old Smithsonian Institution, which doubtless needs one but needs an organizing principle a lot more. It's spread out over nine ill-assorted buildings (unless I've lost count of some here and there), and its different divisions go from the near-sublime (the National Portrait Gallery) to the more than ridiculous (the National Museum of American History).
Three million-some-odd artifacts (some very odd indeed) are rattling around the Smithsonian's vast storage closet of a "history" museum. They seem to bear no relation to each other or to the purpose of a museum -- if the Smithsonian has a purpose other than demonstrating how a fine example of late Victorian architecture can be swamped by a blank 1960ish addition, and make a crammed hall closet look like a model of organization. (If every decade has a stereotype -- the buttoned-down 1950s, the gaudy leisure-suited '70s -- the 1960s could be summed up as Where We Went Wrong.)
So the Smithsonian sits there like something out of the Addams Family cartoons, trapping light and appropriations, a vast mix of the fine and vulgar, the inconsequential and the overpowering. Sometimes called The Nation's Attic, the Smithsonian's history museum certainly looks like one, a long-neglected one. An immensity of objects big and small and huge have piled up over the years -- from a magnificent steam locomotive circa 1926 to a pink Patsy Cline costume. And just about everything in between. Its national museum of American history is really more a National Warehouse of American Stuff, for history ought to have something to do with story -- an intelligible narrative. This museum doesn't have one.
All in disconnected all, the Smithsonian is about as coherent as this bill now speeding through the U.S. Senate, which also contains $4 million for the Kennedy Space Center, $3 million for research into the cause and containment of oil spills, and almost $17 billion in Community Development funds to fulfill this president's vision of an ever more statist (and ever more indebted) nation. Hurricane Sandy isn't the reason for this bill but the excuse.
You name a pet cause of the nanny-state (Amtrak, Climate Change, and who knows what else in the small print), and the odds are you'll find it in this bill -- down for millions if not billions.
Some senators have tried to stop this steamroller, but it's unlikely they'll succeed, not when so many other senators would like to take the money for their constituencies and run. Whistleblowers like John McCain and John Cornyn have tried to alert their colleagues, but the Senate as a whole is still fast asleep.
The quarterback behind this sneak play is, of course, the Hon. Charles Schumer, senior senator and nudnik from New York. He may not be the biggest spender in Washington, but he surely rates among the top dozen or two. (There are so many to choose from for that dubious honor.)
Meanwhile, the Fiscal Cliff grows higher, the national debt deeper, and innocents may still wonder how we got into such a mess. They need look no further than this Emergency "Relief" bill, which mainly relieves taxpayers of their money.
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