Was I the only one cringing last week when Fox News’ Tucker Carlson took our newly-elected congressman, Dwight Evans, to the woodshed over Evans’ refusal to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration? Check it out:
All three of Philadelphia’s congressmen—Evans, Bob Brady and Brendan Boyle—shamefully boycotted the inauguration, making Philly the only big city in the country to have all of its representatives skip the presidential swearing-in. All have safe seats, of course; this is, after all, what Citizen columnist Jeremy Nowak has called Moscow on the Delaware, the city where two-party systems go to die.
Evans’ logic was tortured—if disagreeing with a president-elect is grounds for boycotting the one event where country has been placed above partisanship, doesn’t that mean we’ll soon have one-party inaugurals?—while Brady’s was typically more straightforward, if equally wrongheaded: “Donald Trump spent eight years telling Barack Obama he was an illegitimate president. You can’t have it both ways,” Brady told the Inquirer. “We’re Philadelphia, loyal to a fault, and Mr. Lewis is a dear friend.”
Brady’s referring to John Lewis, the Congressman and civil rights icon Trump called “all talk, no action” in (what else?) a tweet, after Lewis called Trump “illegitimate” when announcing his boycott of the inauguration. Okay, let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first:
This is no brief in favor of Trump. He should not have dissed Lewis. But—in keeping with the prepubescent nature of the depths to which our political discourse has sunk—keep in mind that Lewis started it by calling Trump illegitimate, when, in point of fact, he is not. Inconveniently for many of us, Donald Trump won the presidency and there’s no evidence that Russian hacking influenced that outcome. Besides, John Lewis is a big boy. He got into a scrape with the Narcissist-in-Chief, but I bet he’s handled tougher situations, like when his head was getting bashed in on that bridge in Selma. Brady and Evans are big, tough guys who seem strangely oversensitive that a dude with orange hair responded to their friend’s diss by calling him a name. If attending the inauguration was good enough for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it should have been good enough for our three area congressmen.
Okay, with those pro formas out of the way, here’s the problem: The Philly delegation’s “I know you are, but what am I?” decision to boycott the inauguration was not only hypocritical, but politically misguided.
Brady, Evans and Boyle could still oppose Trump on numerous fronts, but work with him when it inures to the common good. And they could send a signal that they’re not going to follow the tired script of the “just say no” opposition. Being principled and constructive do not have to be in conflict.
It’s hypocritical because the Democrats just spent eight years justifiably lambasting Beltway Republicans for being the party of No, for following a strategy, laid out by Mitch McConnell at Barack Obama’s 2008 inaugural, of knee-jerk obstructionism. Calling Trump illegitimate and boycotting his inaugural sends a signal that you’re no different, that, when the situations reverse, you’re just as likely to place partisanship above country. And that’s also what is politically tone deaf. If there was one message the electorate delivered last year, it’s that the same old, same old is no longer acceptable. Why borrow from discredited play books?
Friday’s inauguration was followed on Saturday by a heartening display of people power, of citizens taking to streets across the globe and speaking truth to power. And that was as it should be: Citizens protest, while their elected representatives should…represent. Attending the inaugural would not have been an endorsement of Trump. Instead, it should have been seen as part of the job of being a congressman…to be there, to stand, on our behalf, for principles like the sanctity of our democracy.
We elect representatives to engage in the political fights of the day for us. So how about some constructive legislating, Philly delegation? You’ve got a president who says he loves to make deals—how about putting a grand bargain on the table for him?
There’s a deal to be had around two big policy areas. One is infrastructure. Trump has talked about a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, something he mentioned in his otherwise dystopian inaugural address. Such an infrastructure investment scares the bejesus out of Paul Ryan and his like-minded fiscal conservatives. But Democrats and Trump could align over a game-changing proposal that rebuilds highways, roads, bridges and tunnels throughout the country. Brady, Boyle and Evans should resurrect, as part of such a bill, an Amtrak plan for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor first announced in 2012. For $150 billion, it would take all of 37 minutes to take an Acela from Philly to New York City.
How about that for economic development? At the risk of making Eagles/Giants games even more incendiary, Philly would become a bedroom community of New York…which would grow jobs, real estate values, and tax revenue to the city. Maybe, finally, we’d be able to fund schools, bring down the poverty rate and address the pension crisis that dare not speak its name.
Brady et al could sell this to Trump by promising him some great photo ops—he’s a sucker for photo ops—and the added bonus that, by boldly putting America on a high-speed rail par with the rest of the world, he’d also be sticking it to Mr. Amtrak himself, Joe Biden, who talked during the campaign of taking Trump “behind the bleachers” and kicking his ass. Trump always needs a bogeyman.
But make no mistake: When it comes to infrastructure, given the risk associated with Trump splitting with his party on such a big spending bill, the Dems arguably need it more than the president does. So the Dems have to come to the table with something else. This is where they should think out of the box, and join Trump’s war on federal regulations.
Now, that might sound like heresy. Liberals love regulations, right? Well, there’s a way to take on the regulation that exists in name only. Ever hear of the Federal Register? Here’s Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair some years ago, with a primer on how so many regulations decreed by government agencies come to be:
The Federal Register is published every working day and contains the text of new government regulations, presidential decrees, administrative orders, and proposed rules and public notices. The edition for this ordinary Wednesday comes in at 350 pages of dense, dark type. It is unimaginably varied: you’ll find rules for the importation of Chinese honey; proposed conservation standards for home furnaces; permitting procedures for the experimental use of pesticides; announcements concerning the awarding of new radio and TV licenses; and hundreds of other items. You can think of the Federal Register as the official record of federal activity in all its range. You can also think of it as the daily report card of the lobbying industry, whose interests and resources underlie nearly every line of type. There is hardly a large private company in the country not dependent on some kind of government contract, and hardly a business of any size that is not subject to some kind of government oversight. And don’t forget foreign countries, which have their own dealings with the United States. The press may claim the vestigial title of Fourth Estate, but it is the lobbying industry that is now effectively the fourth branch of government.
According to the writer Charles Murray, in 2013, the Code of Federal Regulations numbered over 175,000 pages: “Only a fraction of those pages involved regulations based on something spelled out in legislation,” Murray explained in a 2015 Wall Street Journal essay. “Since the early 1940s, Congress has been permitted by the Supreme Court to tell regulatory agencies to create rules that are ‘generally fair and equitable’ or ‘just and reasonable’ or that prohibit ‘unfair methods of competition’ or ‘excessive profits,’ and leave it to the regulators to make up whatever rules they think serve those lofty goals…If a regulatory agency comes after you, forget about juries, proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, disinterested judges and other rights that are part of due process in ordinary courts. The ‘administrative courts’ through which the regulatory agencies impose their will are run by the regulatory agencies themselves, much as if the police department could make up its own laws and then employ its own prosecutors, judges and courts of appeals.”
Friday’s inauguration was followed on Saturday by a heartening display of people power, of citizens taking to streets across the globe and speaking truth to power. And that was as it should be: Citizens protest, while their elected representatives should…represent.
Murray makes a distinction between sensible regulations—rules that require, say, secure structural support for tunnels in coal mines, and those that get written and passed thanks to the laws of bureaucratic entropy: “…such as ones that mandate a certain sort of latch for a bakery’s flour bins or the proper way to describe flower bulbs to customers, or the kind of registration form to be attached to a toddler’s folding chair.”
On inauguration day, Trump signed an executive order temporarily freezing the Federal Register so that orders passed in the waning days of the Obama administration but not published yet will be lost forever. Well, Brady, Evans and Boyle could go to Trump, a copy of that day’s Federal Register in hand, and tell the president they want to help end the scourge of over-regulation. Let’s go before the cameras and drain the swamp together, they could say.
In other words, Brady, Evans and Boyle could still oppose Trump on numerous fronts, but work with him when it inures to the common good. And they could send a signal that they’re not going to follow the tired script of the “just say no” opposition. Being principled and constructive do not have to be in conflict. And who knows? Maybe it would also be smart political strategy—because most voters want solutions, not more name-calling.