Opinion

The Incumbent Bailout Act of 2010

If there is a third certainty in this life, beyond the proverbial death and taxes, it is that exiting a self-created crisis is expensive.

Texting-while-driving is a great way to fork over $500 for another man’s bumper. If you run afoul in Eastern Europe and find yourself dodging the authorities, a fake passport worthy of navigating customs will set you back $2,000. But those are small potatoes. For a truly pricey exit visa, try a divorce right here in America, which averages $20,000. Escaping a hostile country, it turns out, is a mere one-tenth the cost of escaping a hostile spouse.

Yet if reports of an imminent health care bill are to be believed, then nothing compares to what we are about to see: the most expensive contract killing of bad publicity in American history. Simply put, for the White House and Congress to hit the ejection button on the health care debacle, abruptly ending a conversation over which they’ve lost control, the American people will pay $940 billion.

That is costlier than the bank bailout, the housing bailout and it dwarfs the lifeline thrown to the auto industry. In an age in which taxpayers have repeatedly underwritten incompetence and poor judgment, what lies ahead is the most expensive bailout to date: the bailout of their elected officials.

Since the bill harnesses neither the hopes of progressives for a single-payer system, nor the entitlement control pushed by conservatives, it is difficult to conclude that this bill is anything other than the Incumbent Bailout Act of 2010.

This would be an easier pill to swallow if elected officials offered their constituents a plausible story. An elegant lie would suffice. There have been many such wink-and-nod exchanges between incumbents and their constituents. We are used to hearing that greater spending will somehow, someday, mysteriously deliver us greater savings. Americans are owed a coherent story, if only to protect the ever-disappearing presumption that a bill that passes Congress is rooted in the merit of a policy objective. We can forgive bad judgment—as evidenced by the high rate of incumbency—what Americans have not been asked to forgive is overt, calculated cynicism from their representatives. That question is about to get some airtime. The real purpose for the final push was best summed up by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who on Wednesday finally agreed to support the bill, saying, “You do have to be very careful that the potential of President Obama’s presidency not be destroyed by this debate.”

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$940 billion to protect potential?

It is no wonder the people expected to pay for this bill have greeted news of its arrival with something near hostility. They have watched this desperation for over a year. The debate has summoned the phrase “unprecedented” for so long that there is now ample precedence, and it lives in yet another misfired press release intended to convey, “See, we can too govern.”

A much more ennobling event, in the crisis control mantra of Tiger Woods, would be to simply apologize, quiet down and return to the cameras at a later date with some humility and focus.

While Washington has been distracted, the American people have soldiered-on. By and large, in 2009 Americans were left like Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone,” and after the initial eyes-wide-face-slap at the realization that the adults were nowhere to be seen, Americans went about the business of carrying on with their lives. Life’s greatest lessons are usually cloaked in chaos, and this past year was no exception. For the past half-century Americans have been told that we are inevitably becoming consumers of government. We look to government for each and every answer. Sometimes it takes a government of “unprecedented” absurdity to remind people that, in the course of their everyday lives, they don’t really need it anyway.

Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.