Sometimes laughter is the only possible response to a ridiculous situation. I love seeing others laugh, but there are some people who witness laughter and become extremely upset. I’m afraid that’s what happened to House Speaker Robbie Wills on Thursday.
Rep. Greg Reep, standing on the House floor, was explaining how important it was for us to raise taxes. Of course, everyone has the right to his or her opinion on these things. My opinion: to strip $90 million out of the economy to pay for new health care programs when we have $300 million in the state treasury, in the middle of a recession, is not very responsible. I think it’s the fiscal equivalent of driving your car into a lamppost, getting out of your car, and swaggering up to the policeman on the scene and saying “Yeah, I had a couple of drinks. What are you gonna do about it?”
Disagreement about the way the world works is common in any legislative body. Disagreement isn’t fun, and it’s not very funny. But when someone speaking in favor of a tax hike realizes that it’s pretty hard to make a convincing case on the merits, and instead tries to justify it by saying “I’m a fiscal conservative” – as Rep. Reep did – well, I am afraid there were plenty of us who found this particular statement hilarious.
Most of us understand what a budget is. Put simply, it’s a way to set financial priorities. The whole point of a budget is to force us to make choices, to weigh things against one another in a world of limited resources, so that we assign resources to their best and highest use. The discipline of abiding by a budget is a necessary and useful one.
But when we decide that budget discipline is just too hard – when we give in to weakness by deciding that we need to continue to spend every dollar that we currently budget for and also buy $90 million worth of new stuff in addition – we have made a regrettable choice. This choice is not regrettable just because it will kill jobs and burden the economy with $90 million more in taxes. This choice speaks poorly of us morally because we have failed to behave like adults who can make intelligent decisions and set priorities by scouring the existing budget for second-tier items that we could eliminate.
Someone who makes Reep’s choice – to tax more and spend more – can describe himself as a fiscal conservative, just as you could describe a bank robbery as a financial transaction. But this kind of abuse of language invites incredulity and laughter. It certainly did Thursday.
I won’t defend Rep. Mark Martin. Martin was wrong to yell “It’s the law” when Reep was speaking about the way he “balanced the budget,” and Martin was right to apologize on Friday. But if we aren’t even going to be allowed to laugh when the man standing in the well of the House says something entirely lacking in moral or intellectual seriousness, I think we’re all in trouble. Laughter is an involuntary reaction to an absurd situation, and as far as I know it is not expressly prohibited by House Rules.
Robbie Wills is most upset – not just about Martin’s inappropriate outburst, but about the laughter at Reep’s remarks that filled the chamber. In a blistering post on his blog, he scolded us by saying that laughing “showed a complete lack of respect for the House of Representatives.” He and I have a fundamental disagreement about who it was who showed a lack of respect for whom on Thursday.
I say that laughter is often a healthy response to bluster and scolding. I think even Robbie Wills would agree with that, especially when he gets over being a sore winner.