The Third-Worst Legislative Act in History

No, HR 1 as passed by the House last week is not the worst bill in human or even American history. (The worst legislation ever has to be the vote by the German Reichstag  on March 23, 1933, to pass the "Enabling Act" that gave Hitler dictatorial powers and unleashed World War II. The second worst -- number one in U.S. history -- was probably the vote by the Virginia General Assembly on May 23, 1861, to secede from the Union, which unleashed the full fury of the American Civil War.)

HR 1 doesn't actually declare war. (Although you might be confused after listening to reactionary spokespeople like Rick Santelli, who compared Wisconsin's state deficit to September 11: "If the country is ever attacked like it was on 9/11, we all respond with a sense of urgency," Santelli said. "What's going on in balance sheets throughout the country is the same type of attack.") There's no foreign country we are about to invade here -- we are only attacking ourselves.

The casualties would be real. If the U.S. Senate and President Obama were to go along with the House and agree to anything vaguely resembling HR 1, then tens of thousands of Americans would die needlessly in just the next few years. And the death toll would continue climbing over the century until it reached the millions. This is a not an attack that, once launched, would be easy to recover from.

Hyperbole? Consider this data:

HR 1 prevents the cleanup of mercury, soot, sulfur, and ash from coal-fired power plants. The current avoidable death toll from the sulfur emissions alone is running at 14,000 Americans a year. Living downwind from a coal-ash pile, as hundreds of thousands of Americans do, is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day -- and HR 1 prohibits cleaning up those coal-ash sites. Right now, one in six young American women has enough mercury in her body to threaten the health of any child she bears.

HR 1 eliminates funding, both domestically and globally, for urgently needed family-planning programs that save lives and prevent abortions. Three million American women would lose access to basic reproductive health and family-planning services, including cancer screening. Funding for international family-planning would be slashed by $200 million, which would increase global mother and child deaths by 148,000 each year. Tragically, these funding cuts would also lead to a staggering increase in global abortions -- 1.6 million more -- an increase larger than total abortions each year in the U.S.

HR 1 also devastates our national commitment to fight disease. The Centers for Disease Control gets cut by 25 percent, and a billion dollars gets slashed from research programs at the National Institutes of Health.

But the greatest loss of human life envisaged by HR 1 comes from its breathtaking effort to ensure that the United States does everything possible to disrupt the stability of both U.S. and global climate -- by actually making it illegal for any agency of the federal government to take action to protect our nation from a climate collapse. HR 1 forbids the federal government from reducing pollution from any chemical that threatens the climate, even if it is toxic for other reasons. It eliminates all funding for research to answer the remaining scientific questions about climate change. And it even forbids the government from monitoring how much climate pollution we are creating. So much for the oft-heard argument, "Let's finish the research before take action in haste." The proposal would simply stop the research altogether.

Since mid-range projections of the death toll from unchecked climate disruption -- as reported by Forbes magazine -- show it rising to 5 million a year by 2020, HR 1 is locking the world into an annual death toll that will shortly exceed that of any disaster in human disaster, World Wars I and II included, except the global flu pandemic of 1919.

But the flu pandemic was a self-correcting catastrophe that lasted only a few years. Climate collapse will be a self-reinforcing disaster -- and it is one that HR 1 deals with by saying, in effect: "Bring it on." The difficulty is that the 235 Republican members of the House who voted to pass HR 1 are, without exception, unlikely to be killed because of a climate catastrophe. So although they have declared war on the rest of the American people, they won't personally be at risk -- unless we take their Congressional seats away from them.

I should note that, just as three members of the Republican caucus in the House voted against Newt Gingrich's first 1995 assault on the public-health safety net, the exact same number -- three -- broke with their colleagues last week: Jeff Flake of Arizona, John Campbell of California, and Walter B. Jones of North Carolina. Not a single Democrat voted for HR 1. And if you think this bill is about balancing the federal budget, I will point out that investments in public health research, clean air and water, and family planning have repeatedly been shown to save -- not cost -- the government money and that the House rejected an amendment to save money by eliminating Department of Defense sponsorship of NASCAR events -- which evidently is a higher priority than treating diseases like Alzheimer's.

It seems unlikely that Congress will shortly consider giving President Obama the kind of dictatorial powers that the Reichstag awarded to Hitler. But kissing cousins of the Virginia Secession Resolution are bubbling up in the hands of the extreme reactionaries at the state level. In Arizona, for example, 14 different bills are pending in the legislature that would either broadly or narrowly assert that the state may nullify Acts of Congress if it chooses. Arizona was part of Mexico, not the United States, when this was last tried -- by South Carolina in 1832. So perhaps Arizona legislators think they should be forgiven for not remembering where the road from Nullification ended -- at Fort Sumter, in 1861, and finally at Appomattox, in 1865. Lori Klein, the sponsor of the most sweeping Arizona Nullification law, chirpily promised "We're not seceding. We're looking at nullifying laws coming from the federal government that are mandates that are not constitutional." Oh. The Tea Party began as a full-throated demand that we return to the Constitution. It's rapidly morphing into a cry that the wrong side won the Civil War.  

I'll take refuge in, of all people, Friedrich Engels, who commented that history repeats itself, "once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce." Last fall's election should not take us down the tragic road to another Civil War in this country. But we have to hope that the Democrats in the Senate and President Obama are as firm as Andrew Jackson was in 1832. The House Republicans, and Lori Klein, have gone too far, and we shouldn't let them destroy our country while they figure that out.