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Cook Organic not the Planet Campaign

Why Do Members of Congress Think They're Exempt from the American Work Ethic?

I don't think of myself as especially hard working. I started my career at The New Yorker as a young staff writer—and in those days in New York publishing circles, the day began at ten a.m. That’s when the receptionist arrived, the switchboard opened. As a result, twenty-five years later, if I’m sitting at my computer by nine-thirty I still think to myself, “I’m early!” (Not only that, but twenty-five years later every place else I’ve ever lived still seems cheap by comparison.) Still, even with that laggardly start, I’ve managed to get done most of what I set out to do, and I’ve never spent a lot of time whining about how hard it all is. If Americans are supposed to be good at anything, it’s hard work.

Which is why it’s so depressing to work on climate change. Year after year, for more than two decades now, the hard work essentially goes undone. Our political class holds conferences, takes testimony, considers scientific reports, gathers in enormous international conclaves like last year’s Copenhagen session— and from it all, nothing happens. In this country, our twenty-year bipartisan record of doing absolutely nothing at the national level is unblemished. In 1988, running for his first term as president, the old George Bush said, “I’m going to fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” Good line.

This was all supposed to actually change when Barack Obama took over, and indeed, he’s done more to fight climate change than all the presidents before him combined. Also, I’ve drunk more beer than my twelve-year-old niece. And anyway, before anything really big can happen, it has to work its way through Congress, and right now the signs are not especially good. In a fit of hard work, the House managed to pass a giant pork-laden “cap-and-trade” bill last summer, only a few months behind schedule. But then the bill headed to the Senate, where it ended up circling the runway behind the health-care jumbo jet that just refused to land. And now that, several decades late, the Senate has finally done something about health care, its members appear to be completely exhausted.

Here’s a Democrat, Claire McCaskill of Missouri: “After you do one really, really big, really, really hard thing that makes everybody mad, I don’t think anybody’s excited about doing another really, really big thing that’s really, really hard that makes everybody mad. Climate fits that category.”