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May 7, 2013

Washington draws wrong lessons from Boston bombings

Margaret Carlson

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Ordinary people, elected and unelected, behaved heroically last week. Unfortunately, it all happened far from Washington.

In Boston, strangers gave clothes and shelter to shivering runners. They comforted injured spectators. They saved lives and limbs. In New York, there wasn’t as much to do, so they sang Sweet Caroline at Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, the people we love to hate — elected officials and government bureaucrats — performed admirably and collaboratively, sharing power and camera time.

For a glimpse of how ordinary civil servants do their jobs without fanfare or riches, we should listen to Edward Deveau, the police chief of Watertown, Mass. He’s just a small-town cop. He never thought he would find himself and six of his officers called upon to stop two bomb-throwing terrorists.

But they were, and they did. Deveau didn’t come close to spiking the ball in an interview with MSNBC.

“Watertown’s men,” he said quietly in that interview. “They saved a lot of lives.”

Now come to Washington, so broken and filled with the wrong people that it can’t rise to the occasion even when the occasion is relatively low and brings no hail of gunfire, no life-or-death decisions. There was no need to capture any terrorists on the run. Instead they ran their mouths.

Called upon this week to resume Senate judiciary committee hearings on immigration reform, they melted down. They’d gotten to a surprisingly good place thanks to a rare confluence of bipartisan interests: Republicans want to have a prayer of getting some of the Latino vote and to provide cheap labour to their business constituents. Democrats would like to keep the Latino vote.

Passing an immigration bill is the Senate’s only chance to do something important this session, now that it has missed the chance to do something not very important about gun control.

But the Senate is like a game of kiddie soccer: Everyone just wants to go where the ball is. So the senators wanted to spout off about what happened last week in Boston and use it to justify whatever they wanted to do. The result was an unusual public outburst of childish bickering.

Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat, said it would be cruel to use Boston to delay immigration reform. His Democratic colleague Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the Gang of Eight that negotiated the immigration compromise, said his colleagues shouldn’t use Boston as an excuse to slow down the carefully crafted bill.

“I never said that!” shouted the usually amiable Charles Grassley of Iowa, turning to face Schumer. He yelled it again in case Schumer was secretly listening to his iPod.

“I don’t mean you, Mr. Grassley,” Schumer said. He quickly blamed the misunderstanding on “lots of calls” he’d gotten from the unwashed masses dialing the switchboard. In fact, Grassley had said just that — and his Republican colleague Jeff Sessions of Alabama chimed in as backup.

If Senate Democrats want immigration reform to move along, they might reconsider calling out their Republican colleagues. That’s not how the Senate works. If SpongeBob SquarePants were a senator, he would be referred to as “Mr. SquarePants” or “my esteemed colleague from Bikini Bottom.” No one would call him squishy or spongy in public. Republicans have already been quietly seething for months as Democrats invoked the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., to push gun-control measures Republicans didn’t want.

Grassley isn’t the only Republican senator citing the events in Boston as an excuse to delay reform. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was for reform before he was against it, might be for it again if the bill would have kept the Chechens out (it wouldn’t have, although all the rules requiring immigrants to register would help the government keep track of them). Marco Rubio of Florida, whose presidential hopes are riding on threading the immigration needle, wants to use the Boston investigation to address any shortcomings in the current bill. Dan Coats of Indiana called for Congress to “just push it back a month or two.”

Two months should just about do it, by which I mean kill immigration reform. Vice-President Joe Biden, God love him, was asked to study gun control, and that study is now being blamed for sapping some of the momentum. (Although what really killed gun control was the National Rifle Association’s time-tested strategy of bullying cowardly members of Congress.)

This week’s hearing and last week’s bombings brought home two truths. The first is that Washington doesn’t cope with tragedy so much as look for partisan advantage in it. Although Grassley never admitted using Boston to delay immigration reform, he did say that if he were to do so, he would be justified, given how Democrats had used Newtown to push for greater gun control.

The second is related to the first: In a crisis, we should be grateful that the U.S. Congress, or at least the Senate, isn’t in charge. For civility, competence and common sense, we’re better off looking hundreds of kilometres away.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. (Bloomberg News)

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