Weeping on CSPAN

Old programs never die, and old senators never fade away, they just talk on C-SPAN. Mostly, they talk about saving those old programs, though occasionally a senator will find one he wants to eliminate. The chances are excellent, however, that a majority of his colleagues will save both the senator and the republic from an occasional lapse into sanity, the cure for which is to keep on funding forever as many programs and essential government "services" that the mind of man – or woman – can imagine.

I don't subscribe to cable television, so I may under-appreciate the entertainment value of our representatives and senators in Washington, since I only see C-SPAN when I am in other people's homes. Recently, I had the privilege of staying at a friend's Florida condo, while he remained in Manchester, NH. Since he has three TV sets in his 4-room unit (not counting the two bathrooms), I easily yielded to the temptation to watch TV while I was there.

C-Span was not my first choice. I'm a nostalgia freak, so I naturally gravitated toward the TV Land channel, which features the top shows of yesteryear. I watched "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza" every morning, starting at 6 a.m. I enjoyed "Happy Days" both on TV Land and on "Superstation" WGN. I even caught a couple episodes of "The Dukes of Hazzard" on a channel devoted to country music and other things "country." I still consider "The Dukes" short on plot and long on legs, the latter belonging to the lovely Catherine Bach, who played Daisy Duke. No doubt about it, Cathy Bach set the gold standard for legs on television.

Despite all those distractions, I finally made it on over to C-SPAN on a rainy day in Sarasota, when the Congress was in session in Washington and the baseball games were washed out in Florida. Listening to the Senators debate, I noticed a difference between C-SPAN and the other entertainment venues I'd been visiting. On the other shows, it was pretty clear who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" were, even if they weren't wearing color-coded white and black hats. It was not that way on C-SPAN, though I probably could have found that kind of "moral clarity" on the "fair and balanced" Fox News channel, where the "good guys" not only have an "R" after their names (for "righteous," I guess), but they have an American flag waving in the corner of the screen when they are on camera. In my admittedly limited viewing of Fox News, I have noticed that flag seems to disappear when the heavies with the "D" label (Dastardly?) are on camera. Sure, the good guys get the flag, the bad guys don't. What could be more "fair and balanced" than that?

But in watching C-SPAN, the thought that jumped out at me was that if I were a visitor from another country, or another planet, I would not be able to guess from what I was hearing which of our two great parties is supposed to be on the conservative side. Suppose, for example, I were to hear a member of Congress vigorously defending the nation's space program. A big-spending liberal, right? No, probably not. Chances are it's a "big government" or "national greatness" conservative, championing the spirit of government-financed exploration and innovation. Or, as former budget director David Stockman satirically suggested, the way to build a better mousetrap is to go to Jupiter.

What I did hear was Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Oregon, argue against a proposed cut in the Medicaid program, because this, by golly, is a program that is working for a lot of needy people. He even wrapped his defense of the big government program in cautious, conservative "look before you leap" rhetoric. "Measure twice before you cut once," Smith advised his senate colleagues.

Up popped another Republican, the distinguished Lamar Alexander, former governor, former U.S. Commissioner of Education and now the junior senator from Tennessee. (Who says Republicans are against recycling?) What the distinguished senator from Oregon was calling a proposed "cut" in Medicaid, Alexander said, is really a two percent reduction in the projected increase in the program's cost over the next several years. What's more, he said, if the Congress doesn't do that, there will be less money to spend on other programs, like Medicare and education. No, I wouldn't have guessed that ol' Lamar was a budget-cutting "conservative" from the party that until a few years ago was promising to do away with the federal Department of Education.

Then there was "Jolly" Judd Gregg from my home state of New Hampshire. Judd has pretty well blended in with the Washington establishment in this, his 13th year in the U.S. Senate, and I believe I saw more of him in a couple of hours of watching C-Span than I have in the last several years in New Hampshire. But there he was, trying to not only cut, but actually eliminate a program. (Did I mention that the righteous Judd has an "R" after his name?) Ol' Judd was going after the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program. That was enacted by the semi-honorable Congress several years ago to facilitate the Clinton administration goal of putting 100,000 "cops on the street." But now, said Gregg, we have reached and surpassed that goal, with more than 100,000 cops on the streets, not to mention the alleyways, the speed traps and the donut shops. Yet the Congress goes right on funding the program.

As Gregg explained it, the idea was to get the communities receiving the federal grants to hire the additional cops and then, once they saw how valuable those enhanced police services are, they would make provisions for them in their own municipal and state budgets and the Congress could go off and spend those federal dollars somewhere else, where they are more urgently needed (like Mars, for example). But the program, once started, has a broad constituency with a strong demand to keep it going. Mayors, city councilors, selectmen, police departments, as well as ordinary citizens who like additional police protection without having to pay for it on their local tax bills, may be counted on to oppose ending or even cutting this "essential" government program.

This isn't exactly new. It has been going on for as long as we have had government "programs." But "Jolly" Judd has said he wants to prove Ronald Reagan wrong for once and show that a government program is not necessarily the "closest thing to eternal life" that we'll ever see in this world. At least Gregg has had the candor to admit he voted for the COPS program at its inception. "As ye sow, sow also shall you reap."

And then weep about it on C-SPAN.

March 31, 2005

Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny (send him mail) is a freelance writer.