When I saw that Kevin McCarthy’s House of Representatives voted to reduce the Secretary of Defense’s salary from $235,600 down to one dollar per annum, I immediately thought of 18th-Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s famous categorial imperative. If you didn’t take Philosophy 101 in college, I’ll help you out here. The standard definition of Kant’s categorial imperative is: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
What does that mean? Well, basically, it’s a way of saying that you shouldn’t do things if you wouldn’t like see everyone else doing them too. Do you want to see everyone on earth constantly shoplifting? No? Then maybe you shouldn’t shoplift.
And I don’t really mean to say that it’s a bad idea to reduce a cabinet member’s salary down to a dollar because some future Congress will return the favor in a way you don’t like. That’s a good argument against this particular action, but my thought is more on the personal moral plane. This vote was taken by voice, meaning that there was no recorded roll call, so we can’t say for certain how any individual lawmaker voted. All we know is that ‘ayes’ outnumbered the ‘nays.’ And this is a good example of doing something stupid and shitty and then seeing that a lot of other people also did the same stupid and shitty thing, which then produced a (universal) law which will be applied to the House defense spending bill.
Now, honestly, this version of the defense spending bill will never become law, and everyone who voiced their vote on stripping Secretary Lloyd Austin of his salary understood that. The New York Times characterized it as “akin to a legislative tantrum driven by the hard right.” In this case, a tantrum can be defined as a decision to support legislation that you don’t really want to see become law simply to express your anger. Or, in another formulation, it’s a clear violation of the categorial imperative, because if everyone supported the bill, including the Biden administration, then Austin really would make a one dollar salary next year.
And, yes, perhaps the sponsor of the amendment, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, would genuinely like to see that outcome, but the vast majority of Republicans who went along with Greene did it just to join her foot-stomping base-pleasing showmanship. And now they’ll have an opportunity to vote for the salary reduction again when the roll call for the overall defense spending bill occurs.
So, how’s that going to look?
Representative Marc Molinaro of New York, a Republican expected to face a tough re-election race next year in a district that voted for Mr. Biden in 2020, said he would still support the Pentagon funding bill.
“I just would say it’s not the kind of thing that I embrace,” Mr. Molinaro said of stripping Mr. Austin of his salary.
So, Rep. Molinaro of New York has decided that he doesn’t embrace stripping Austin of his salary (meaning he probably didn’t voice support for it) but he will vote to strip Austin of his salary anyway. But, again, what if everyone made the same decision? Would Molinaro still feel morally comfortable with his decision?
Now, I suppose there’s a place for messaging bills in politics, and it really does matter whether some action you take is free of consequence. But even here, there are consequences. First, the House Republicans are wasting time passing messaging bills when the government is due to shut down in a couple of days. Second, it’s sends a message when a party votes to strip the first black Defense Secretary of his salary for no obvious reason.
To be sure, Rep. Taylor Greene says one dollar is too much because of “the firing of thousands of troops for refusing the Covid vaccine” and a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. But those are not serious arguments.
I’ve always believed the categorial imperative is a flawed moral guide, but I agree that we’d be in real trouble if everyone acted like Taylor Greene, and that’s what we’ve just witnessed from the House Republicans in this case.