Thursday, April 19, 2007

Changing minds, one at a time -- Rehberg and Baucus today, tomorrow...

There are times when one is so proud of Montana that it's hard not to burst. Our truly bipartisan (as in "unanimous") rejection of the Real ID Act makes for one of those times.

The Real ID Act was one of those bad ideas whose time had, in the opinion of some, finally come. As a Republican, one can't help but be disappointed that it was someone with an "R" behind his name who proposed it. On the other hand, we can be "consoled" by the reality of current political life -- namely that no matter who is in control of the executive branch, that person is susceptible to the Siren song of statist policies and executive over-reach.

It really doesn't matter what party they stem from, presidents try to expand or at least preserve presidential powers and prerogatives -- and the more that things are federalized, the more power the executive branch has. One of the most distasteful aspects of considering the possibility of a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton presidential sequence is that Clinton II, like Bush II, will be starting out already in a practiced mindset of Presidential power. With a Fred Thompson or a Bill Richardson, it would take a while for the rookie President to build up to it.

Getting back on track with this essay, we would point out that exactly the same Republicans who would have opposed this act tooth and nail had Bill Clinton proposed it found themselves meekly voting for it out of misguided party loyalty. Likewise, many of the same Democrats who vigorously oppose it would have thought a national ID to be a great idea had Clinton proposed the idea.

Whatever the stated reasons, it is probable that Rep. Denny Rehberg, whom regular readers of Montana Headlines know we loyally support, voted for the Act in no small part out of party loyalty. Party loyalty is important -- without it, a lone U.S. Representative from a small state has little ability to muster support for bills of importance to his state. (Remember, Sen. Tester -- who has far greater power as one of only 100 U.S. Senators -- has a strong "independent streak" because he votes with his party a mere 90% of the time, rather than the 95% party-line voting of other freshman Democratic Senators.)

It is also understandable that Rep. Rehberg would be inclined to follow the recommendations of the September 11 commission. But who on earth he was talking to when he got the idea that Montanans (especially those of us in his own party) would favor a national ID, we have no idea. Regardless, he apparently has gotten the message clearly now, thanks to our state legislature, and we have a newly devoted opponent of the Act. Don't you just love conversions to the true path?

Rehberg originally voted for the Act (all but 8 Republicans voted for it, 42 Democrats voted for it) -- but we doubt that anything similar will happen again. What is interesting is that U.S. Senators managed to avoid a track record on the bill -- they threw it into an emergency Iraq and Katrina funding bill that no-one could vote against, resulting in a unanimous 100-0 vote. Not surprisingly, Sen. Baucus now says he opposes it. We'll never know, will we?

Speaking of Sen. Baucus changing his mind, we have Sen. Baucus now opposing fast-track trade authority. Sort of. For the most part. More or less. Maybe. We think.

Montana Headlines has commented before that Baucus's devotion to the religion of unlimited free-trade is one of the most inexplicable of any number of inexplicable positions. There are so many good habits and positions that Baucus could have picked up from Republicans -- why would he decide to pick up one of our bad ones? We realize that being K-Street's favorite Democrat maybe, just maybe, has something to do with it. But still...

Yes, we at Montana Headlines understand that there are those Republicans who think that supporting untrammeled international free-trade is part of being conservative and that we are being inconsistently conservative by saying anything that criticizes it. To them, we have only one thing to say -- read a little more history.

Being done with that digression, it would be nice if Sen. Baucus were truly now opposed to fast-track trade authority, coming around to the idea that Congress is responsible for regulating trade -- which includes actually getting trade deals done. But reading the article (for which, a hat-tip to 4&20 BB), it is really hard to be sure exactly what Baucus is thinking or where his position is. One gets the feeling that he's out in no-man's land again.

Consider: "While Baucus believes that the fast track authority is important, he argued that since the administration is not currently negotiating any new trade deals, there is no immediacy to extend the power now. "

Why do we have this uneasy feeling that Sen. Baucus is throwing a cheap bone in the direction of his left flank here? That he feels safe in expressing this muffled opposition to fast-track because his stance will have no real effect on policy? It would seem that this is perhaps so:

“Once agreements start to come down the pike, then there will be a need for us to address [fast-track],” Baucus said.

More time to figure out the lay of the land, more time to raise campaign funds from both K-Street and leftie sources before having to make a commitment.

Baucus said the current (fast-track) authority may be used for four deals the administration has already closed with South Korea, Colombia, Panama and Peru.

Now, Montana Headlines is not suggesting that it would be good policy to change policies mid-stream on deals that have already been closed when the involved nations understood during negotiations that fast-track was in place.

But it is hard not to be wary. How far down the pike do the agreements need to be in order to address fast-track trade authority? Don't negotiators on both sides need to know what rules they are working with from the beginning? Perhaps we are going to be put into a position where Sen Baucus is telling us that we're still going to have a national conversation about fast-track -- but, oh, we're already deep into broad-based negotiations with the E.U. -- so we need to throw that one and a few others under the old policy for reasons of good faith.

In summary, we'll see whether Montana's rejection of the Real ID Act will have led to another step down a healthy populist path for Rep. Rehberg. He already has talents and inclinations in that direction, as anyone in touch with grassroots Montana Republicans does. We'll also see whether hopes of Sen. Baucus turning a new leaf on trade are justified. One hopes that both will be the case.

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