THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 417, May 13, 2007
Time to Wake Up
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
I recently attended a party that reminded me a good deal of my own college-age days. At the party in question, one attendee decided he'd had enough for one evening and fell asleep on the sofa. As soon as his friends were sure he was well and truly unconscious, they broke out the magic markers and proceeded to write and draw on just about every square inch of the young man's exposed skin, including (especially, in fact) his face.
Some years ago, we used to do pretty much the same thing to our friends. We called it "Fu Manchu-ing" because the single most popular thing to draw was a long, curled black moustache on the face of the sleeping victim. When I told the story of last weekend's party to a co-worker and mentioned my own past experiences, he laughed and informed me that he and his buddies used to look forward to giving their friends magic marker argyle socks.
The reaction of this latest bleary-eyed victim was just the same as every other I've seen. First, he didn't even notice which made everybody laugh. Then he did, which made everybody laugh harder. The last I knew, he was still trying to scrub the black and orange pictures off of his face and arms.
There's an obvious lesson here, of course: Don't make the mistake of falling into an unguarded sleep, even with people who say they're your friends. It's a lesson I learned all too well myself long ago when I vowed never again to endure the humiliation of attending a family get-together with still visibledespite vigorous scrubbingpurple ink on my face. The very permanence of the ink involved illustrates the corollary to the rule: If you make the mistake, the clean-up is going to take a lot longer than simple preventative measures would have in the first place.
This kind of thing is actually kind of funny. Oh, it can be embarrassing and difficult to explain until all of the ink is gone, and certainly it's not the kind of things we mature adults with day jobs ought to enjoy. But still, and on balance, it's kind of funny. A few other pranks that also inv olve a good deal of inkapplied when we're not looking by people who also say they're our friendsare significantly less so.
Our political representatives, for example, are our friends. Or at least they're supposed to be. Our well being is supposed to matter to them, and caring about our well being is something that friends do, isn't it? Certainly, our politicians smile at us a lot which our friends also tend to do. And just like our closest friends, they tell us that what we think really matters to them. Unfortunately, whatever their claimed good intentions, they're not really our friends at all. And woe to us who fall asleep and fail to keep an eye on them!
Immediately after 9/11, Congress acted to pass legislation euphemisticallyand inappropriatelyreferred to as the USA PATRIOT Act. We were told that the provisions of the PATRIOT Act would keep us all safer, and members of the House and Senate lined up in support. The reality, of course, is that the ink was no sooner dry on the PATRIOT Act than it began to do a lot more to curtail the liberties of law abiding Americans than to do anything else.
It's tempting to assign at least some of the blame for the PATRIOT Act to the average American voter. We do have a history, after all, of being pretty much oblivious to what's happening in Washington at any given point in time! But in this case, Congress itself was asleep at the controls. There wasn't a soul who voted for the PATRIOT Act who really knew the details of the law when casting his or her vote. No one had read it because there was a grand total of one copy of the legislation in existence at the time.
While there's been plenty of chatter since October of 2001 and the passage of the PAT RIOT Act, nobody's had much to say about politicians who vote for something they don't know anything about. Congressional representatives and Senators may not have had magic marker moustaches after voting, but it's fair to say they've surely got egg on their faces. That the White House has since been accused of taking unreasonable and unconstitutional advantage of the PATRIOT Act may make the president look bad, but it frankly makes those who voted in favor of the legislation in the first place look even worse.
The REAL ID Act made it through Congress in an entirely different way. The members were wide awake at the time, but they weren't voting for or against REAL ID when they cast ballots. They were voting on military funding. REAL ID had simply been penned in as a late and unrelated amendment to the budget bill, and most politicians were afraid to say so much as, "Hey! What's this doing in here?" when it came time to say yea or nay.
Now, of course, many in Congress are in the unenviable position of defending something they didn't really vote on for its own merits but rather as part and parcel of something else. Over half of the states are now on record as opposing the REAL ID Act with demands that Congress repeal it, revise it, or at the very least cough up federal dollars to pay for it. There still aren't any magic markers in sight, but plenty of faces are undeniably red and more seem to be changing color every day (I refuse to consider this to be a bad thing, but it could all have been avoided if everyone involved had paid more attention in the first place).
The truth is that we could do more ourselves to prevent these embarrassments (which is an awfully kind word for infringements of liberty when you think about it) from happening. We can't know everything that our politi cal representatives know at any given point in time, but we can certainly make it our business to demand that they know what's going on before they cast a vote on anything!
There's a phenomenon ongoing in Washington right this minute, for example, that requires our attention. When the Democrats took over both Houses of Congress after the 2006 elections, one of their central campaign promises involved something called "earmarks." Essentially, earmarks are little (and not so little) bonuses that various lawmakers tack onto unrelated legislation here, there, and everywhere to ensure that favored constituencies get government goodies. The campaigning Democrats criticized earmarks, and rightfully so.
Now that the Democrats are nominally in charge in Washington, what's happened to the plague of earmarks? Well, earmarks are being inked onto bills right and left (in the case of the Democrats, I suppose that would be left and left). Apparently, the Democrats were asleep when they made those promises. Or perhaps we were, and all of those empty assurances were just a dream we were collectively naive enough to think might come true. The good news, though, is that it's within our power to actually do something about it.
Politicians keep making empty campaign promises because we don't fire those who break them. Politicians consistently pay people off with government largesse of one sort or another, and we don't do a thing to stop them (perhaps because any personal benefits blind us to the nightmare that is nothing more or less than the theft of tax dollars from other good Americans). But we can give Congress a real wake up call by making some demands, and then sticking to our principles. To ensure that nobody can be easily fooledand to cut enough time and nonsense that none of us will ac tually fall asleep trying to figure out what's happening, I'd suggest:
1. Bills should be briefno longer than a few pages (except, of course, for comprehensive budget matters) and written in language the average high school graduate can comprehend (and in this country, that's not saying much at the moment).
2. Bills should have no amendments attached which are not directly related to the subject of the bill.
3. Bills cannot be considered until every member of Congress indicates that he or she has read it and understands it. Random pop quizzes will be given to ensure that the politicians aren't lying about having read the bill. (Okay, that second part is just a joke, but wouldn't that be great if we could actually make that a requirement?)
4. All Bills should have a sort of "snooze alarm" attached to them in the form of a sunset clause. In other words, every bill will sunset unless it is expressly re-authorized by Congress. That way, no matter who's asleep at the time, none of us will have to be embarrassed (or inconvenienced or terrorized) by bad legislation, at least not for long.
5. Every law subsequently passed by Congress must apply to all members of Congress just as it applies to everybody else. (If you thought they already did, you're the one who was dreaming!)
In the spirit of honesty (which is likely something most in Washington won't understand), there's a little more to all of this than merely falling asleep. Before you can truly "Fu Manchu" somebody, it's best that they be past sleep and, in fact, passed out. So in addition to waking up, we've got to make sure that we sober up. Laws are serious things because, whether they're good or bad, they're going to be enforced against us and our neighbors.
If each and every one of us accepts our responsibility as one of "the People" to whom all powers under the Constitution are truly reserved, we can demand the same from Congress. If we stay awake and alert, we can make sure our representatives do, too. If we maintain a sober look-out, we can put a stop to legislation that only a power-drunk politician could love. And if we catch those politicians sleeping or under the influence of lobbyists or other corruptions, we can take out our magic markers and do some writing of our own when we put a mark next to somebody else's name next time we head for the polls.