“The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.”

– Alexis de Tocqueville

Recently, I thought of America’s favorite Frenchman when I read about the latest congressional scam du jour, buried in something called the “Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005,” a reconciliation submission by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Sounds important, eh? Anybody who is not afraid of the Big Bad Wolf couldn’t possibly oppose something called “Public Safety,” could they? Of course not!

So without further adieu (as Mr. de Tocqueville might say), let me quote the first point from the august Senate committee’s own press release: “$3 billion for a converter box subsidy program.”

Now, at a time of soaring federal deficits, of deafening middle-class whines about not being able to buy that flat-screen television because taxes are too high, about Bush’s what-me-worry attitude about potholes on Main Street while he finances sparkling new Iraqi highways and the displaced population of New Orleans is many times larger than that of Fallujah, the Senate Committee wouldn’t be – no, no, couldn’t be – thinking of actually spending $3 billion to subsidize stupid black boxes on top of television sets so the American public can watch reruns of “Leave it Beaver” or this week’s “World Series of Poker” in a clearer, sharper image?

I was pretty sure that “converter box subsidy” was some new wondrous technology – like a satellite that could peer into the mysteries of the human heart and identify terrorists before they were born. Or maybe it was a subsidy for something that poor people need – like housing, health care, or decent public schools. Fortunately, the New York Times set me straight.

The $3 billion was there to allow owners of analog boxes – essentially, the 70 to 80 million Americans who don’t pay up monthly for cable or satellite television – to convert to digital systems, and thereby become more likely – if not required – to pay the monthly vig for a subscription service. Move over monthly expenses for blood pressure or diabetes pills, and make way for “Animal Planet”!

Obviously, this provision of the bill is designed to subsidize both the public as well as the cable and satellite subscription companies, currently ranked in national esteem just ahead of Abu Musab al Zarqawi. This foolish, unnecessary, absolutely decadent provision was voted in 19 to 3 by the committee. Co-sponsors were Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska (the guy who de Tocqueville was thinking about when he coined the epigram above, and if you don’t believe me, check out what overpopulated Alaska picked up in the recent highway bill) and Democrat Daniel K. Inouye. Voting against the bill were three rich people who somehow haven’t forgotten what they were elected to do – Sens. John Kerry, John D. Rockefeller IV and Barbara Boxer.

Is there any better evidence of American decadence? Our national mood drifts; Congress and the White House are engaged in a race to the bottom in popularity; the median price for a house on Nantucket is $1.2 million; we’re in a supposed war on terror, but the only ones sacrificing anything are a relatively tiny handful of Americans who voluntarily lay their lives on the line, while the rest of America’s youth skate by without sacrificing a thing; people die or are rendered homeless because government wanted to save a few bucks on substandard levies in New Orleans; meanwhile, people who can’t afford the payment on their first mortgage take out a second mortgage to pay the first and run up some more credit-card debt.

I don’t know when this will all end. But it will not end well.

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