The civility chorus may at last be getting what it wants, a shutdown of debate in the name of piety and good manners. Honest debate frightens the chorus, whose sopranos and tenors forget that debate, sometimes gentle and sometimes loud and robust, is what Congress is meant to be about.
Rep. Paul Ryan, once the tough numbers cruncher for the Republicans, has been the eager point man for President Obama in the campaign to give him authority to make unilateral trade deals that include far more than mere trade. Mr. Ryan is having trouble dealing with partisan stress on the eve of the Friday vote. He has lately become a sidekick for Nancy Pelosi,
He lost his cool in an exchange on the floor of the House with a Republican colleague who was pressing him to say out loud, in plain English, what's actually included in the Pacific Rim trade deal that President Obama regards as crucial to his "legacy." Mr. Ryan told him, with the heat that Republicans usually regard as a violation of the civility code, that the contents of the legislation are "classified," that everybody can find out what's in the legislation once it is adopted and the president signs it. The public should shut up and mind their betters.
This sounds like something from the playbook of Mzz Pelosi, who once famously — or, more to the point, infamously — said that Congress had to pass Obamacare to find out what was in it. Mr. Ryan, in fact, sounds a lot like Mzz Pelosi as the acrid debate moves toward a vote.
The public is asked to take a lot on faith. Trade legislation is complicated and all discussion of it is more or less necessarily conducted in the arcane language that only Congress understands (or misunderstands), with lots of puzzling acronyms, obscure initials and misleading labels and descriptions — the likes of TPA, TPP, IOU. The only initials that congressmen, Democrat or Republican, don't understand is PDQ.
Skeptics of the trade legislation abound, including both Democrats and Republicans, and John Boehner, the Republican speaker, has cheerfully connived with the Obama administration to keep as many of the details as possible hidden in the legislative argle-bargle. Curious members of Congress who insist on reading the legislation they're asked to vote for must repair to a secret room in the Capitol to read it. They can take no notes, and they are required to sign a paper that they will say nothing about what they read in the secret room. No one but a congressman who knows the password and the secret handshake can enter the secret room.
When Rep. Michael Burgess objected, complaining that he was trying to be on his best behavior but "it took a long time for me to even be able to see the agreement down in the secret room." He was willing to sign the release that said he wouldn't talk about it, but "it took me a long time to get an audience with the U.S. Trade Representative. It [took] an act of Congress literally to get him to come and talk to my subcommittee on energy and commerce."
Mr. Ryan told him sharply: "All I would say is [that's] all the more reason to pass TPA." Skeptical members of Congress, like their skeptical constituents, should shut up, too.
The stakes in the trade vote are large for everyone. The vote on Friday is one of the most consequential of the president's second term, measuring the size of his clout on Capitol Hill. He has never before said anything nice about the Republicans in Congress, but now he must depend on them to bail him out on this far-reaching legislation. If Mr. Ryan is correct, and he should know, the rest of us won't have any idea what Congress imposes on us until the legislation is adopted and sent to the president.
Some of the leaks are scary, indeed. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a Republican, says the legislation takes a big bite out of the nation's sovereignty, putting the nation's interests at the mercy of other governments. By assigning authority to the president to decide who gets in and who doesn't, Mr. Obama can open the gates at will to uncontrolled immigration. This appeals to certain Republican business interests, who are eager to guarantee an ample supply of cheap and easily abused labor. It appeals to Mr. Obama and the Democrats for the promise of new waves of illegal aliens who can be expected to vote Democratic forever.
Deceit and deception often work in the short run, but the ultimate price of betrayal is high. If there was nothing to hide, why are the president and Mr. Ryan playing a game of hide-and-seek?