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A Washington-style mafia bustout

Washington recently provided us with one of those spectacles that are a bit hard to figure by our conventional modes of reasoning.

The United States has massive budget deficits -- probably almost half a trillion dollars annually -- as far as the eye can see. Sure, we've spent lots of money on defense and homeland security. But as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said earlier this month, Congress is spending money "like a drunken sailor" on almost every front. The Cato Institute just released a study showing that non-defense discretionary spending has gone up by 12 percent in 2002 and 2003.

This isn't guns 'n' butter -- we're talking unmanned drones and Beluga caviar for everyone.

Then, against this backdrop, the president and the Republican congressional leadership pushed through Congress a Medicare prescription drug bill that almost certainly will cost far more than its nominal $400 billion price tag.

If the White House or the Hill were under Democratic control, such a massive increase in federal spending would have been a source of extended and heated debate. But in this case, the very Republican congressmen and senators who would have made the budgetary case most vociferously were the ones hammering the bill through with the most merciless sort of whipping.

So why this odd ideological turnabout? Easy. The bill is -- or seems to be -- good politics because it allows the president to check off another campaign promise he's made good on and it gives big payoffs to many of his party's favored constituencies, such as HMOs, drug manufacturers and even rural hospitals.

Of course, there's one possible hitch. While the headlines undoubtedly make for good politics, people on both sides of the aisle realize that this bill actually may not make for good politics once people really see how it operates. The solution? Easy. Put off implementation until 2006.

And that last part of the puzzle helps put all of this into a larger context.

Like the decision to game the Medicare bill around the 2004 election, just about everything the administration has done in the last 30 months has been done with little thought to the medium-term, let alone the long-term, consequences.

There's the rapid run-up in the deficit we've noted, repeated instances of breaking political precedents for short-term political gain -- like the unprecedented decision to re-redistrict congressional maps in Texas and Colorado -- and then of course there's foreign policy, where decades-old alliances have been wrecked and our military capacities have been vastly diminished all to make way for the invasion of Iraq, which -- in case you haven't noticed -- isn't going so well.

Taken together, almost everything we've seen since early 2001 points to a decision to rush through as many political goodies as possible and secure as much political power as possible as soon as possible, with little regard for picking up the pieces.

And that suggests an analogy.

What we're seeing in Washington today has an uncomfortable resemblance to what, in mafia lingo, is called a "bust-out."

It goes something like this.

Say you're a gambler and I'm a mobster. I've lent you lots of money. But now you can't cover your debt. I could pursue the matter through your kneecaps or toss you out of an office window, but instead I take a more constructive approach.

You own a shoe store. I take over your operation, order everything under the sun and fence all the merchandise for as much money as I can get as quickly as I can. I run out every line of credit you have and generally squeeze the place of every dollar I can get out of it. And then I torch the place and collect on the insurance money.

Sure, it's not the most sustainable business model. But I have my money back, and what happens to you is your problem.

No analogy is perfect, of course.

I have no question that President Bush is trying to solidify Republican control over the federal government. And on the face of it, leaving messes that will need to be cleaned up in the not-too-distant future doesn't seem like the best way of accomplishing that end.

Who knows what the future holds? But let's not kid ourselves. This is all being done for today and tomorrow, and for the fairly narrow interests of one political party.

How we pick up the pieces just ain't part of the equation.

Joshua Micah Marshall is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He contributes to the Washington Monthly and is a columnist for The Hill, where this opinion piece originally appeared.

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