Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Yesterday I attended a nomination hearing on Capitol Hill, which featured the proposed new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It was instructive.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the committee chairman, used the hearing as an opportunity to hold forth on the dangers of "distracted driving" and the use of text messages while driving. Rockefeller described the problem as "huge" and "a vast problem for our future", revealing that it was something "I really worry about a lot."

Mind you, the U.S. has large numbers of troops deployed in two conflicts, a mounting national debt, an economy in recession -- among a plethora of pressing issues -- and Sen. Rockefeller is worried about text messaging.

It may be tempting to imagine that during such a hearing one of the Republicans would ask why text messaging and its alleged ills are a problem to be solved by the federal government, or explain that such regulatory powers were better left to the states as outlined in the Constitution. But that would be engaging in fantasy. In fact, Sen. John Thune -- endorsed by David Brooks for President -- used his allotted speaking time to express worry about teenage drivers texting in South Dakota, and asked how the NHTSA nominee would tackle the problem.

Made aware of this apparent pressing issue, I decided to look up traffic fatality statistics, which NHSTA maintains online dating back to 1994. Here's what I found:

(click to enlarge)

As one can see, the number of traffic fatalities in the last 15 years has remained almost unchanged, even though the population has grown from 260 million to 304 million -- a 17 percent increase. Thus, an increase in both population and the adoption of cell phone technology has corresponded with fewer traffic deaths. That is not to say texting or cell phones have made us safer, but it's also rather difficult to see this as a matter of grave importance.

Summoning his vast powers of foresight, Rockefeller added that he believed a technological solution would eventually arise to solve the texting problem -- bizarrely referencing OnStar -- at which point I knew he was completely at sea.

The hearing featured other lowlights. Alleged conservative Thune queried one of the nominees about how hard she would press for export promotion initiatives, because, you know, export promotion is better handled by government than corporate marketing departments. Chairman Rockefeller said that chemical and power plants along the Ohio River were "extremely vulnerable" to terrorist attack, adding he was "amazed" no attack on such facilities had been conducted.

But it isn't just the big issues of texting and terrorist attacks in West Virginia that are keeping our Congress busy, there's also the problem of loud television commercials:
Television viewers jarred by abrupt spikes in volume during commercial breaks may someday be able to give their mute buttons a rest.

"I not only dive for the mute button, but I end up having to close my windows so that the blast doesn't affect by neighbors," says Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. "I live on a cul-de-sac, and so the sound resonates."

Irritated with loud commercials, the California Democrat found it was also a common complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. So she drafted a bill aimed at preventing TV ads from playing noticeably louder than the programs they sponsor.
Eshoo doesn't like loud commercials, but instead of turning down the volume she decides to take the perfectly logical step of...drafting a piece of federal legislation. Why not?

And when our Congressmen aren't busy introducing new legislation and tilting at various windmills here in D.C., they're living it up overseas according to today's Wall Street Journal, which details one junket to Scotland. It's stomach-turning stuff:
In Edinburgh, the lawmakers stayed at the Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa. With "state-of-the-art spa and leisure facilities including a rooftop indoor/outdoor pool," says Frommer's guidebook, "this hotel pretty much has it all."

The group stayed in top-floor rooms overlooking the 12th-century Edinburgh Castle. The government rate for the rooms is at least $300 a night, according to the hotel. On top of that was the control room of three adjoining rooms stripped of beds. Lawmakers and aides say a control room is necessary to provide work space, meeting rooms and easy access to American-style food.

Two Air Force liaisons went to a wine and liquor store called Oddbins. With one aide reading from a shopping list for scotch, they bought three bottles of 12-year old Auchentoshon for $42 apiece and a bottle of 14-year old Clynelish for $52, according to the clerk who rang up their order. Mr. Tanner's spokesman said the group reimbursed the military liaisons.

The overall cost to the government of the trip won't be public for a few weeks. Mr. Tanner has taken seven previous trips to the NATO assembly. Their total reported cost, for him and his co-travelers, came to $575,000, not including the undisclosed cost of travel on Air Force planes.
I just hope they treated the Air Force staff better than Sen. Chuck Schumer does on his flights. Congress is arrogant, spoiled, out of touch -- and they want to run your lives.

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