The Irresponsible Congress

You know, I’m getting more and more sympathetic to this view:

Many observers and participants — including the entire GOP and Democratic leadership — are quick to cry gridlock and to blame inaction on some new awful hyper-partisan or ideological era.

But there isn’t gridlock, which usually results from Democrats and Republicans sharing power and clashing over alternative positions. Gridlock slows things down — almost always a good thing — but it doesn’t stop serious legislation from happening. Welfare reform, balanced budgets, defense cuts and capital-gains tax rate cuts in the 1990s were all the product of gridlock that slowly gave way to consensus.

And today’s Congress is more than happy to pass legislation when it suits members’ interests. In just the past few months, for instance, the ostensibly gridlocked Congress reauthorized the Export-Import Bank program that gives money to foreign companies to buy U.S. goods; extended sharply reduced rates for government-subsidized student loans; re-upped the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes airline service to rural communities; and voted against ending the 1705 loan-guarantee program that gave rise to green-tech boondoggles such as Solyndra and Abound. None of these were party-line votes — all enjoyed hearty support from both Democrats and Republicans.

What we’re actually witnessing — and have been for years now — is not gridlock, but the abdication of responsibility by Congress and the president for performing the most basic responsibilities of government. Despite the fiscal crisis that Washington knows will occur if it fails to deal with unsustainable spending and debt, it hasn’t managed to produce a federal budget in more than three years.

The budget debate is where this has reached its apogee. Both parties know that the situation is growing increasingly critical and both parties know what needs to be done. Hell, Tom Coburn — the supposedly hyper-partisan Nazi Right-Wing fascist — has repeatedly talked about the obvious grand bargain that both parties know is the only choice: entitlement reform, spending restraint and Kenned-Reagan style tax reform that increases revenue but compensates by sharply reducing the deadweight loss of the tax code.

But neither party is willing to do it. The Republicans would rather pass symbolic repeals of Obamacare and pointless criminalization of abortion in DC (neither of which will pass the Senate, let alone Obama). The Democrats would rather talk about raising taxes on “the rich” and blast the GOP for “ending Medicare as we know it”. The Republican nominee is recycling idiot economics and promising to cut taxes, raise military spending and balance the budget by … I’m not sure. The Democratic nominee is proposing “spending cuts” that amount to denying a bureaucrat a new pet gerbil.

But it’s critical, that we understand what is happening here. This inaction is not produced by partisanship; partisanship is the excuse. The parties can get stunningly non-partisan when they want to. They just passed a six-month funding bill to avoid a fiscal catastrophe in October (sensible enough but not really what we need). They’re working to undo the budget sequester if they can. They found it remarkable easy to extend unemployment benefits and payroll tax cuts and pork spending.

People blame the “base” for the partisanship. And it’s true that the Republican base has a conniption fit any time taxes are discussed and the Democrat base blows up anytime entitlement cuts are proposed. But the parties are more than wiling to ignore their base when it comes to civil liberties, spending restraint and corporate cronyism.

In short, when it comes to easy decisions, they are all about bipartisanship and all about ignoring the base. It’s only when it comes down to the tough choices that they suddenly get all partisany and complain about the toxic atmosphere.

The only real choice we have is to judge them by the results, not the rhetoric. Until we get an actual grand bargain that actually balances the budget and actually makes the tough choices — on spending and taxes — we are being jerked around. By both parties.

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