Our Pathetic Congress
John Avlon on how our government turned to self-sabotage.
Welcome back to Washington, House of Representatives. Hope you all had a great vacation. While you were out, your inaction caused markets to tumble, and now America is just hours away from collectively being pushed off the fiscal cliff.
Your colleagues in the Senate—the supposedly responsible body—have been working the last three days, trying to put together some kind of deal your fractious asses can pass by New Year’s Eve. The bad news is that as of Sunday morning, they still didn’t have a plan to avoid the fiscal cliff. Agreement that 98 percent of Americans shouldn’t have their taxes raised isn’t enough. And deficit and debt reduction? Forget about it—this is all now a desperate exercise in political pain avoidance.
The fiscal cliff is, of course, the world’s most predictable crisis. Congress set this time bomb themselves—and now they can’t agree on how to defuse it, despite more than a year of debate and a presidential election largely centered on the subject.
In a surreal twist, Democrats are readying bills for the first days of the new congress to pass the largest middle-class tax cut in American history if they can’t get enough Republicans to agree we shouldn’t go over the cliff.
The implications are not adequately captured by the catchy visual metaphor. Not only will your taxes be raised, but America’s economic recovery could be reversed, with congressional incompetence pushing America back into recession.
Congressional approval now stands at 18 percent. The real question is why is it so high?
The current 112th Congress—characterized by Tea Party congressmen elected two years ago—is the least productive since the 1940s. It makes Harry Truman’s infamous “Do-Nothing Congress” look like a paragon of speed and efficiency.
The problem of course is that polarization—the decline of competitive swing districts due to the rigged system of redistricting—has made most Republican congressmen terrified of being primaried from the right for being too reasonable. This problem has been compounded by the rise of partisan media, which has dumbed down civic discourse into an angry, idiotic us-against-them exercise. The result is congressional division and dysfunction. Congratulations.
But direct culpability in creating the conditions for this crisis hasn’t stopped the professional partisan activist class from arguing that at this pivotal moment, members of Congress should do nothing and just go over the cliff.
FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity have been emailing their supporters to tell them to pressure their congressman not to vote for any tax increases. That might sound impressively principled, until you realize that its really an insult to their supporters' intelligence—because all taxes will be raised automatically, unless congress votes to keep taxes low on 98 percent of Americans, as our supposedly socialist president has repeatedly proposed.
On the left, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is also arguing for no compromise, with its cofounder Adam Green emailing supporters: “Democrats need to continue a bright line position: Raise tax rates on those making $250,000 at least to the Clinton rates and no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits. Period.” This also ends up being an argument for going over the cliff, because it dooms any hope of even a modest deal as a good-faith basis for future action on the deficit and debt.
If this supposedly liberated lame-duck Congress can’t agree on basic outlines of a grand bargain agreement that has been debated in detail for the past two years, why should we believe that the next Congress will have more success? Immigration reform, gun reforms—those more difficult debates will be effectively DOA from day one.
This is self-government committing economic suicide, putting ideological absolutism ahead of solving problems. The idea of a productive lame-duck session after the contentious election has been erased. Hopefully, Senators Reid and McConnell will surprise us with some kind of patchwork compromise by the self-imposed deadline of 3 p.m. today, but they have been keeping rumors of progress to themselves. (Update: they didn't.)
Beyond the looming fiscal abyss, senators have been busy passing a flurry of last-minute legislation that can be categorized as the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. They finally agreed to not be complete grinches and pass a Hurricane Sandy relief bill, but it seems far from assured from passage in the House. By a lopsided vote of 73 to 23, the Senate also extended Bush-era warrantless wiretapping until 2017; civil libertarians screamed, but not loud enough. And thanks to an executive order by President Obama, members of Congress will see a modest pay raise in the new year. You know, as a reward for all their good work over the past two years.
This congressional Kabuki is killing us, because it masks a more fundamental problem. Congress seems unable to act unless confronted with a crisis at the last minute—and even then, they can’t agree on anything significant or substantive that actually deals with long-term problems. Maybe they should just stay on vacation and spare us the rhetoric. But as the clock ticks to New Year’s, they should have a guilty conscience that might inspire a genuine resolution to reform. Because they created this crisis and now seem unable to fix it. We’re the ones who will feel the pain. It is an epic act of self-sabotage.