Wednesday, March 6, 2013

High Noon 2013: Sequestration

I haven’t seen High Noon in decades, but the shoot-out between Marshall Will Kane and outlaw Frank Miller is iconic. Even the words high noon are now part of our understanding; when it’s high noon, we know a decisive moment, a deadline of consequence, has come.

Marshall Kane’s high noon arrives when Frank Miller’s prison term ends. Upon his release, Miller gathers his gang and announces that he will arrive on the noon train to avenge his lost years by shooting Kane, the man who sent him to prison. Newly retired and ready to leave town with his new bride, the lovely Grace Kelly as Mrs. Kane, Kane initially decides not to stay to fight, but honor and duty overtake him. He stays, and in doing so, must face an ugly truth: the townspeople that he’d kept safe refuse to stand with him. So Kane becomes the classic American underdog. Alone, driven by personal honor, a determination to protect the many from the harms of the few, and raw courage, Kane goes into the dusty street at high noon to face overwhelming odds.

This scene returned to me again and again as I contemplated the sequestration hysteria, and I imagined the forces in Washington, D. C. in that street where four roads intersect under a hot, bright sun in a frenzied news cycle. On the east road stand the nine Supreme Court justices. Across from them, on the west road, stand Senate minority leader McConnell, Harry Reid just behind, holding on to Mitch’s coattail.

From the other two roads come the major players. President Obama faces north, the high ground, from which House majority leader John Boehner descends haltingly. Each time he pauses, Eric Cantor gives him a good push to get him back on track.

President Obama and Representative Boehner move slowly, pausing now and then to appeal to the masses, all safely behind thick walls, looking on and listening in from above, in buildings, their faces hidden, masked, behind windows draped with muslin. When asked by the stinging gnats we commonly call reporters, a few onlookers place bets upon President Obama’s ideology, but most are so busy trying to put food on tables and roofs over heads that they simply cannot get too involved. They’re just waiting now, wondering which future they will be condemned to live, one that sends more of them into unemployment lines or one that gives them a fighting chance to hang on another year.

As the bell tower sounds twelve tones, each man raises his weapon, automatics with large magazines, the legal weapon of the realm. They take aim and hold their breath, counting one … two . . . seven…waiting for twelve, the moment when they have decided to dare all, to stake their lives upon a principle. They will live or die by their self-inflicted convictions. Neither one can concede without shame; neither one believes he should surrender. He has looked at election results, tortured them to suit his worldview, and persuaded himself that his cause is righteous. He will martyr himself to that view in the hope that his legacy will endure beyond this hour: high noon in Washington, D. C.

When the twelfth chime fades, muzzles fall. Each man has failed to bring down his opponent; he’s shot himself in the foot instead. Four Justices rush to help the President while four others rush to support Boehner. One remains, his head ticking left and right as he tries to decide who fired first and faster than the other, trying to determine which man deserves the decision.

McConnell and Reid scurry away, back to their campaign lairs, ready to renew efforts leading to reelection in 2014. McCain and Graham, awaiting outcomes at a dark, dank saloon table, hear the news and turn away, ashamed to see men who would let the national defense down so completely. They let the gnats sign them up for endless rounds of news hours where they will prognosticate a grim future.

The peasants move away from the windows. They go back to putting food on tables and roofs over heads, inured to the drama that politicians stage, cynically assured that those actors on the stage care little for their struggles. Gnats buzz and hypothesize.

So what should the next act in this drama be? President Obama should tell the people that he will do everything within his power to shield them from the worst of Washington, and Congress should prick its bubble and mix it up with those of us in the real world. Boehner should shake off Cantor’s hold and cling to his Constitutional duty as provided for in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution: The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; ….

By abdicating, as Boehner and his tea-lovers have, and by deferring to the Senate or blaming the President, the House has simply become derelict. It has betrayed its duty to the people. And so has the Senate, ever so fond of filibuster threats and posturing about ties to Muslims, the natural, cyclical warming of the earth, and dark secrets unknown. Neither body sends whole, thoughtful legislation to the president for his signature; instead they play a game of chicken, daring each other to blink and turn away, all in an effort to gather power.

The President cries J’accuse, finger pointed to Congress, and they point right back. Scalia, speaking provocatively and for other lovers of tea, suggests that he will have to take over since Congress lacks the spine to oppose entitled notions and hangers-on. Impartiality, be damned. Precedent? Pah!, he says.

And we are left with uncertainty, certain only that government has broken down. Hopelessness weaves its icy fingers around our hearts. We look toward the horizon for a lone figure driven by personal honor, a determination to protect the many from the harms of the few, and raw courage. If only he or she would hurry for our need is great.