Is Congress Broken

Progress 9/8/11

Watching the US Congress operate, British MPs might have the right to feel a little jealous. Here is a system in which members of the lower and upper house have real power. Yet with great power should come great responsibility, a responsibility that has been sorely lacking from the men and women trusted with governing the worlds most important economy.

Though the game of chicken with the world’s economy is now over, the crisis has been replaced with what could be the start of a global double dip recession. Since the US has raised the debt ceiling and slashed $2.4 trillion off spending the Dow Jones index has dropped more then 500 points. Congressional disapproval stands at an all-time high of 82%.

The US stand-off for the past three weeks was not the only cause of this crash, but it certainly was not the steadfast, politically grown-up and responsible action one expects of lawmakers at the helm of a superpower.

Reading through the barrels of ink split over the vote, a question that consistently comes up is whether, when up to the wire, Congress will really deliver? Must there be a crisis of epic proportions in order to get congressional figures on either side to work together? From the details of the debt-ceiling bill, the answer seems to be yes.

The way that the bill is structured is such that, while a trillion dollars was cut at its passing, Congress voted to establish a ‘Super Committee’ whose job it will be to find the additional trillion and change to cut and present their finding to Congress for an up and down vote. This vote must happen and there are no amendments orfilibusters allowed. If for whatever reason the committee cannot agree or the vote fails to pass there are two triggers built in. The $1.2 trillion dollar cuts will fall evenly between the Pentagon and Medicare. By mutually assured (political) destruction the parties have agreed to hold a gun to their heads to motivate them to act.

Apart from the fact that the bill suggests that Democrats only care about entitlement programmes and Republicans about the military, what does this indicate about the most powerful democratic country in the world? That it needs to threaten itself with domestic Armageddon in order to work out its fiscal situation. How would you feel if you were a senior or a member of the US armed forces that your financial future is being used as collateral to make the parities actually govern together?

Congress has not always been like this, so what broke the most important political system in the world? Since the Obama election and the rise of the Tea Party, partisan politics have reached new heights in the US. By electing Tea Partiers to power, segments of the American people have put anti-government ideologues into the heart of a system that requires everyone to have the same goal in mind.

A significant amount of congressional figures being unwilling to compromise, regardless of the consequences might have caused the Democrats to give up all their red lines on this occasion, but is no guarantee of future cooperation.

A system does not work if one side plays ball and the other just sits stone-faced and says no. Unless the Republican leadership can get the Tea Party to play by Washington’s rules – exactly what they were elected to oppose – we can expect more nailbiting, economically and socially devastating votes. The last one passed by a couple of hours and the economy tanked; the US might not be so lucky next time.

 

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