The 112th Congress worked hard on just one thing: competing to be known as the most worthless, incompetent, do-nothing gathering of lawmakers in the nation’s history. These political underachievers may well have guaranteed themselves that dubious distinction by what they did and did not do Tuesday night.
In theory, our senators and representatives are elected to promote the best interests of the people who elect them. In practice, a great deal of the elected officials’ time is spent serving the interests of the people who paid for the campaigns that got them elected. But in the past, even the most bought-and-paid-for members of Congress found ways to come together and do the right thing in times of national crisis.
The 112th Congress, though, manufactured an artificial crisis while failing to provide timely aid to people suffering from the devastation of a crisis that is all too real.
The manufactured crisis was the "fiscal cliff." In 2012, after damaging the nation’s credit by playing politics with the debt ceiling and nearly letting the government default on its debts, Congress set a time bomb for itself – big tax hikes and draconian budget cuts timed to kick in after the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2013. This was supposed to focus everyone’s attention so that they would come up with a serious, bipartisan plan for reducing the ever-growing federal deficit.
We all know how that went. Nothing got done for most of the year, then weeks of squabbling and brinksmanship ensued following the November election. Only after the deadline arrived Tuesday was a bill passed that blocked most of the tax increases and delayed reconsideration of the budget cuts for two months.
In other words, Congress could summon the will to do only the very easiest thing: preserve George W. Bush-era tax cuts for about 99.5% of Americans while letting taxes rise a little for households earning more than $450,000 annually. Everything else – all the hard choices – got kicked down the road to the next Congress, thereby guaranteeing another fiscal freakout just weeks from now when the debt ceiling has to be raised again.
It does not have to be like this. There have been countless budget battles in the past, but those occurred in Congresses where compromise, horse-trading and centrist impulses pushed tough debates toward a final resolution. In today’s polarized political world, ideology trumps intelligence, especially in the House Republican Caucus. A perfect example of this was Tuesday’s second failure to serve the public.
Following the vote on the fiscal cliff deal, it was expected that the House would vote on a Senate bill directing $60 billion in emergency aid to the victims of Superstorm Sandy. The people in storm-ravaged New Jersey and New York have waited for assistance many weeks longer than past hurricane victims in several Southern states ever had to wait, but House Speaker John A. Boehner canceled the vote.
A lot of outraged Northeastern congressmen and senators wanted to know why. The answer? Right-wing anti-tax groups, including the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation, have been challenging the aid package, demanding that it be balanced with cuts to other programs. They also claimed the measure had been laden with pork, though the examples of extraneous spending were few. So the tea party ideologues in the House GOP gave the aid deal a thumbs down.
New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie went ballistic. In a statement issued Wednesday with New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, he said: "This failure to come to the aid of Americans following a severe and devastating natural disaster is unprecedented. The fact that days continue to go by while people suffer, families are out of their homes, and men and women remain jobless and struggling during these harsh winter months is a dereliction of duty. When American citizens are in need we come to their aid. That tradition was abandoned in the House last night.”
Since the 112th Congress goes out of business today, the process for delivering storm aid will have to be restarted in the new Congress. Unfortunately, voters did too little to alter the congressional roster in the fall election. Thus it is not cynicism but mere logic that would suggest the new 113th Congress is already primed to set its own low benchmark for dismal achievement.