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On Schedules and the Pity of the Deficit Panel

First, a few words on the untimely death of former Rep. Howard Wolpe, who served in the House for 14 years through 1992.

He was a wonderful man, an intellectual with a passion for justice, who was a role model for his colleagues in many ways.

He focused much of his career on Africa, not an issue that will win a lot of support from constituents but important for the American national interest as well as for its larger human component. Wolpe worked tirelessly to find ways to accelerate the demise of apartheid in South Africa, but also looked to stop killing in other parts of the continent, to relieve poverty and alleviate disease, and to create vibrant economies. He continued his efforts in different ways after leaving the Hill.

Congress needs Members who dig in and develop expertise across the range of issues, and keep pursuing them even if they are not political winners. That is how good public policy gets made and issues that matter neither fade nor fester to reemerge as crises.

Wolpe was a role model in another way — his relentless drive for justice was accompanied by an almost courtly manner, a civility in discourse that is increasingly hard to find.

* * * * *

Now on to a second matter, the Congressional schedule. When Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) visited the American Enterprise Institute before the 2010 elections, at a point when he seemed on a clear path to becoming Speaker, he spoke not about the big campaign issues but about how he would run the House, itself a refreshing approach.

I left his talk cautiously hopeful that Boehner really would move to streamline some elements of the process, restore a major part of the regular order and work tirelessly to promote real debate and deliberation. He said it and he meant it, even if some of his ideas — for example, to have more and more open rules, including on appropriations bills, while breaking the dozen appropriations into many smaller pieces — did not add up in terms of the time they would take.

And it didn’t take a cynic to know that his determination to avoid the huge, catch-all omnibus bills brought up under deeply restrictive rules would last until he needed to pass something that required an omnibus take-it-or-leave it approach.

When Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) promised to reform the Congressional schedule and moved to cut out the commemoratives, which are nice symbols but took up precious floor time, it was a hopeful set of signs as well.

Now look what we have come to.

The item for the floor on Tuesday: H.Con.Res. 13, reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States and supporting and encouraging the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools and other government institutions.

With the real unemployment rate north of 15 percent, a European economic crisis that could lead us into a double-dip recession or worse, a driving need to stimulate economic growth now while finding credible ways to solve our long-term debt problem and with hundreds of other real problems facing the country and the world, this is the House agenda? I guess the real goal here is to drive Congressional approval down to 3 percent from its current 9 percent.

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