When will the madness end?


Who knows when this madness will end. Perhaps by the time these words reach print we will have been delivered of the latest psychotic episode — the absurd shuttering of some federal government bureaus and offices. Dangerous shenanigans, and a national embarrassment. And still to come is the debt ceiling debate.

The man who could end it is the speaker, Rep. John Boehner, for whom one can feel sorry, almost. He is the dog being waved by the tail: the putative leader of the House, its presiding officer, third in line to the presidency, the senior Republican in Washington, Boehner is captive to the three dozen or so of its Tea Party contingent, a fraction of the chamber’s 233-member GOP majority but one which wields outsized influence; without its votes the leadership is powerless, almost. A budget bill minus the language intended to cripple the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) need only be put before the House and it would sail through on the votes of more moderate Republicans and the Democratic minority.

Four others could assist Boehner — the four members of the House from Arkansas, all Republicans. At least one, Rep. Steve Womack of the 3rd District, appears more than prepared to. Alone among the Arkansas quartet, and at some potential political risk, Womack has bemoaned the shutdown strategy. (His northwest Arkansas neighbor, Sen. John Boozman, concurs, though both have, at this writing, sided with their leadership on shutdown votes). That ought not be terribly surprising given that Womack, as persistent a critic of Obamacare as any of his colleagues — though invariably more civil — is a former mayor of Rogers, and thus the only one of the four with experience at running anything.

The 1st District’s Rick Crawford, it is reported, has become part of Boehner’s inner circle. Which means — what? That he is counseling the speaker to stand fast? Or assuring him that he’ll stand with him should Boehner bring the “clean” funding bill to the floor?

The 2nd District’s Tim Griffin has, for the time being, signed on with the Tea Party faction, which is that it is not unreasonable for 10 percent of the House to close government offices when it cannot work its will on the other 90 percent.

Too, the 4th District’s Tom Cotton, who is attempting to unseat Sen. Mark Pryor. In a press release defending his position, a statement remarkable for its baldness, Cotton asserted that “We couldn’t repeal Obamacare, so we offered to defund it.” Cotton did not reveal whether “we” also had “offered” to kidnap the president’s children; presumably Mr. Obama would have declined.

As absurd as the comments from Arkansas’s delegates may be, it pales against the bulk of the hard right’s rhetoricians in both substance and tone.

They complain of a president cutting deals with his Russian counterpart to avert, or attempt to avert, more killing in the Middle East (and deeper, more expensive military involvement by the U.S.), all the while playing Russian roulette with the American economy.

They warn that the United States is on the verge of becoming “the next Greece” while pushing it resolutely toward Athens, unable or unwilling to undertake the reforms that are the cost of solvency.

They decry efforts by the administration to supposedly “control one-sixth of the economy” as if they were proud of that percentage — by far the highest in the world — and determined to maintain it instead of being frightened to death of it and humiliated by how little it provides the nation, as in, for example, an infant mortality rate higher than Hungary, the Czech Republic and — Greece. And life expectancy that trails Qatar, Kuwait and — Greece.

They demand “market-based” solutions, never mind that the marketplace as it exists has hospitals charging 10 bucks for a box of tissues and three for an aspirin tablet.

The conventional wisdom, bolstered by one after another public opinion poll, contends that voters will hold the Republican Party responsible for the stalemate and take it to task at the polls a year from now. I’m not so certain. Would constituencies as ill-informed and scared enough to send mindless (or merely cynical) ideologues to Congress and then repeatedly re-elect them abruptly realize that government is serious business in need of serious people?

It’s Boehner’s play. His speakership is in play, threatened by a minority of his own party that he can’t control. Where will Arkansas’ representatives come down when the vote comes? And when it does, will they hang back, watching the vote count in search of safety? There may be none.

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.