The Politics of Forgetfulness

It’s crazy to call it dysfunctional and Washington is certainly not the seat of a failed state even though you might think so if you listen to some commentators. It’s just that people change their minds. It is tempting to say they do it just to annoy the president. That is cynical. In the case of John McCain, for example, his change of mind is not malicious. He is simply eager to take what he believes at the moment is the best approach to a given issue and is, therefore, not influenced by whatever position he may have formerly taken, inconsistent though his newest position may be.

On October 19, 2006, in a session hosted by Chris Matthews at Iowa State University, Mr. McCain was asked by a student about his position on the “don’t ask don’t tell policy” of the military. In response he said: “the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, Senator, we ought to change the policy, then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to.” When the issue was discussed by military leaders in a Congressional hearing held February 2, 2010, Mr. McCain had changed his mind. Defense Secretary, Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee following the president’s announcement that he would seek the repeal of the 15-year old policy. Admiral Mullen told the senators that repealing the policy was “the right thing to do”. Secretary Gates said he was in full support of the president’s decision. The testimony of the two men angered John McCain who had changed his mind since 2006. He practically rose up out of his chair towards the conclusion of the hearing and with ill-concealed rage said the testimony of these officials “disappointed” him. He went on to say: “At this moment of immense hardship for our armed services, we should not be seeking to overturn the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy”, oblivious to the fact that one of the consequences of the policy has been the discharge of more than 800 military personnel possessing critical skills, including 60 Arab speakers.

Forgetfulness of his earlier stance on ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ was not his only entry into the dark room of lost memory. PAYGO was another.

Under PAYGO rules, new spending programs or tax cuts must be paid for in a way that does not add to the deficit. In years gone by PAYGO had bi-partisan support. In September 2002, when Republicans controlled the Senate, it was passed by voice vote. Then Majority Leader, Trent Lott (R.MISS), said the policy was fiscally sound. Sen. Pete Domenici (R. -NM) said: “Of all the issues you will vote on, the most significant opportunity to save taxpayers money over the next year is this little resolution.” Those men were not alone in their approval of the policy. In 2004 when the Resolution to extend PAYGO was again before the Senate, Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) Susan Collins (R-ME.) and John McCain all voted in favor of the policy even though the Republican Party opposed it. In a hearing before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in 2006, Senator Susan Collins of Maine said she believed that PAYGO rules were a “much-needed restraint for members of Congress as we wrestle with fiscal decisions.” After President Obama’s address to Congress on February 24, 2009, Senator Snowe said: “I commend the President’s call for fiscal discipline to help return our nation to a sound financial footing. I believe now is the time for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to commit to pay-as-you-go rules for both revenues and spending . . ..” In the State of the Union address on January 27, 2010, President Obama urged approval of PAYGO reminding Congress that “pay-as-you-go” “was a big reason why we had record surpluses in the 1990s.”

President Obama probably thought he could count on the support of those who had supported PAYGO in the past. He was mistaken. Not only had John McCain entered the dark room of lost memory but he was joined there by Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. For them it was a no-brainer. Barack Obama suggested it. It must be a bad idea. They were joined by all of their Republican colleagues. The rule passed without one Republican vote. The best reason for opposing the rule was articulated by Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. Representative Cantor opposed it because it would not affect spending that had already taken place. Presumably he and his Republican colleagues have some legislation in mind that will recoup money that has already been spent. As soon as they figure out how that can be done they should share it with the country. That would be their first positive contribution to government in a long time.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at


Christopher Brauchli can be e-mailed at For political commentary see his web page at