November 2010 - Accursed Congress

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

Politician bashing has never appealed to me. I can sympathize with Molly Ivins’ characterization of the electoral process as a matter of trying to distinguish the hair’s breadth of difference that makes one hopeless dipstick slightly less awful than the other, but I can’t really embrace it.

It’s not that I think it’s inaccurate. Quite the contrary. It’s spot on.

You tell me: How do you choose between the guy who’s out hiking the Appalachian trail and the guy who’s taking a wide stance in the men’s room stall? How would you describe that difference other than “hair’s breadth”?

No, Molly was right. Absolutely right. It’s just that as a moderate, I have difficulty with that kind of certainty. We moderates are never sure of anything except that both sides have a point.

And besides, there’s a part of me that just doesn’t feel right about throwing rocks at people who are stuck with such a lousy job. Seems like piling on.

Take Congress.(1) Congress is about as lousy a job as you can have without getting involved with fish or sewage. I don’t understand why it isn’t the loser of the election that gets stuck going to Congress.(2)

I would rather spend my entire life listening to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Fran Drescher debate the application of the infield fly rule to the second act of Don Giovanni than spend two weeks as a Congressman. “Good morning, Mr. Congressman, today’s schedule includes a hearing of the Agriculture Committee, followed by six meetings with constituents who want a bridge or a naval base or a veteran’s hospital built on their property, four meetings with people who contributed trashbags full of money to your campaign and think quid pro quo is Article Eight of the Constitution, and two hours rehearsing the sound bite for the evening news. No sir, no time for legislating today, but maybe tomorrow we can get started on the Death Valley naval base legislation for Mr. McDuck.”

No, thanks.

And since I’m not willing to do the job myself, I don’t question the work being done by the guy who is. That’s a rule of mine. You will never hear me criticize the work of my garbage man or my presiding judge.

But I must admit my willingness to kvetch has expanded somewhat since the two national political parties turned the Congress of the United States into a third-rate game of frat boy dodgeball. I really am dismayed that they are so busy trying to beat the other team that they no longer care about the cost to the country. They’re so obsessed with being doctrinally pure Republicans and Democrats that they’ve lost interest in being Americans.

I happen to think the party I most recently belonged to, the Republican one, is more at fault in this regard than the other guys, but it’s awfully close. We’re back to hairs’ breadths here. And resolution of the question requires application of what we in the District Attorney’s Office used to call the Doctrine of Relative Filth.

As near as I can determine, the Congressional plan for the future of my beloved country is to crawl into the handbasket, hit the down button, and wait for the temperature to start rising and the smell of brimstone to fill the air. All the while yelling at the top of their lungs, “It’s his fault. It’s his fault. It’s his fault.”

That irritates me beyond my ability to articulate, and I suspect my exasperation might be starting to show. Just a little. Every now and then.

So imagine my relief when I came upon evidence that maybe Congress is not the world’s largest depository of leaden thinking. Maybe that distinction belongs to the Romanian Parlament.(3)

In fairness, it can’t be easy legislating for Romania right now. Their economy is going down even faster than my 401(k).(4) Things have gotten so bad they’ve had to raise the sales tax from 19% to 24%. These are not good times for Romanian yacht-brokers.

But say what you will about our guys in Washington, they have not yet sunk to the level of debating the relative merits and demerits of a tax on witches.

That’s right. In a move that makes our national legislature look like a gathering of Nobel Prize winners, Romanian senators Alin Popoviciu and Cristi Dugulescu of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party introduced a bill that would have created a witch tax.(5)

Now what, you’re wondering, is that phrase supposed to say? It says “witch tax,” but of course it can’t actually mean that. It has to be a typo But what is it supposed to say?

Well, it’s supposed to say, “witch tax.” That’s exactly what it was. The Democratic Liberals introduced a bill which, if passed, would have required witches to pay taxes on their witch-gotten gains.

It failed, pretty much for the same reason tax legislation fails in this country it would have disadvantaged the powerful.

Notice I didn’t say it would have disadvantaged “the rich and powerful.” The rich weren’t involved. The problem with the bill in Romania wasn’t that rich witches exercised their clout. There are no rich witches in Romania.(6) Wealth had nothing to do with it.

But power? Absolutely.

Let’s put it this way: If you’re a legislator and you vote to tax a rich person, you can count on money coming in against you in the next campaign. But if you’re a legislator and you vote to tax a person who casts spells, you can count on turning into a frog.

According to the Associated Press, Romania’s senate voted down the proposal. AP doesn’t report the vote, but I’m betting it was everybody-who-knew-what-time-the-vote-was-being-held to zero.

What disappoints me about this, what convinces me that the Romanian Parlament(7) is inferior to our own batch of K Street feebs, is not that they were scared off by the prospect of waking up with an extra nose or having their teeth turn into candy corn. No, that’s a little embarrassing, but given our own Congress’s phobia of being caught voting with the other side, fear of having your car turned into a Rottweiler seems perfectly legitimate.

No, what strikes me as amateurish is that they didn’t know how to go about taxing the witches in the American way. You don’t tax the witches, you tax their tools. Make them pay an extra six per cent for “Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing”(8)

And if taxing their tools doesn’t bring in enough cash, you tax their results. They cause a victim to go up in smoke—hit ’em with a pollution tax. They turn an obnoxious boss into a pillar of salt—excise tax. They put someone’s hectoring spouse on the moon(9)—export tariff.

Only an amateur taxes a witch. A true professional passes a bunch of innocuous laws that seem wholly unrelated but somehow turn witches upside down and shake them until their pockets are empty.(10)

That’s the kind of thing Congressmen learn to do. Now you tell me—who in the world would want that job?

That’s why I don’t bash Congress. God bless ’em for being willing to do it.

I just wish they’d stop bashing each other and get down to business. Forget the party line. Forget doctrinal purity. Good God, man, there’s witches to tax!

(1) If you don’t know that the only possible footnote here is, “Please,” your cultural literacy has been neglected. You should immediately google Henny Youngman.
(2) I also can’t understand how it is that Houston, Texas, is not a penal colony. Seems to me if we could sentence people to Houston, we wouldn’t need Pelican Bay or Leavenworth. But that’s just me: the older I get the more things I don’t understand.
(3) No, that is not a typo. That’s how they spell it. And as long as we’re spelling vwah deer v-o-i-r d-i-r-e, we can hardly cast stones at others.
(4) Inconceivable to me, but the fact is that, unlike Romania, I did not have to negotiate $26 billion dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Union last year, so it does appear they are in worse shape than I am. But just barely.
(5) Insert here your own joke about Democratic Liberals trying to tax everything. Mine were all just too snarky.
(6) Now there’s a sentence we can feel confident has never previously been written.
(7) I’m using this word as much as possible because I love watching my spell check program herniate over it. I can almost hear it grinding its little nanoteeth.
(8) Macbeth, Act I, Scene 1. The State of California generously paid a lot of money for my B.A. in English. I like to dust it off and show it around whenever possible.
(9) “One of these days, Alice . . . one of these days.”
(10) Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like spell-casting.


William W. Bedworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.