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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

THE 112th CONGRESS: TWO YEARS OF DIVIDED GOVERNMENT

The 112th Congress was convened on January 5, 2011. It has been the subject of a landslide of analysis and predictions but few details about specific public policies have emerged. The most common prediction is simply "gridlock" with the Republican controlled House facing off against the Democrat controlled Senate and the Democrat in the White House. But the nation can't simply go on "hold" for two years and most of the "analysis" has focused on the probable conservative activist agenda likely to be forthcoming in the House. The Democrat Senate appears to have abandoned a legislative agenda of its own and seems to be digging in with a bunker mentality to resist whatever comes out of the House.

So what is likely to be offered by the new Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in the coming months?

First, political theatre. In the 2010, mid-term elections, Republicans ran against the Obama Administration's huge health care reform act and now they have promised to repeal it. They have the public's support on this issue with 60% opposed to the reform that has started implementation but whose most onerous provisions are not due until 2014. But the Democrats ignored public opinion when they passed the legislation in the first place and the Senate and President will not allow its repeal. Thus the Republicans in the House are simply making a political statement to the public with their upcoming repeal vote. Once that has been done, Republicans can delay or decline funding for various parts of the reform bill as they come up in future budget proposals but they had better choose carefully, since the early provisions now in place have a wider appeal than the so called future mandate requiring all citizens to buy health insurance.

Next on the Republican agenda is an effort to reduce federal spending on the 40% of the budget that is "discretionary" i.e. not part of automatic entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Early proposals by Republican House leaders include reducing federal discretionary spending to 2008 levels, which would amount, in some estimates, to about a 20% reduction. But that's the easy part. Where these cuts would come from are the hard part and have yet to be described. Whatever the nature of the cuts, they are sure to incur a significant backlash, as individuals and groups that are affected abandon their general desire for budgetary responsibility and make the case that someone else's programs should be cut. Looming in the background is the reality that while significant budget cuts are necessary to lower towering budget deficits and address the 14 trillion dollar federal debt, these cuts simply won't be big enough and somewhere, sometime in the near future, tax revenues will have to be increased if the fiscal health of the country is to be restored. Currently, the country and the Congress are mutually tax averse, as was demonstrated in the "lame duck" session which extended the Bush era tax cuts based on the theory that they would act as an economic stimulus. Whether true or not, raising everyone's taxes during the current recession is politically unfeasible.

Another symbolic issue is raising the national debt limit. It is symbolic because it simply cannot be refused. Still, there are conservative Republicans in the Congress, mostly those with Tea Party affiliations, that are making political statements about this issue. Congresswoman and Tea Party doyenne Michelle Bachmann (R-MI) seems to be leading the charge to refuse to increase the limit. This is typical of Bachmann's inability to process reality. The federal debt grows by itself as the interest on the debt accumulates and is added back onto the principle. The federal government relies on the issuance of government securities to operate. These securities are believed by purchasers here and abroad, to be the safest debt obligations in the world. They are backed by "the full faith and credit of the U.S. government." While unfortunate, and unpalatable, raising the legal debt limit is not a choice. Failure to do so would tell the world that the U.S. no longer stands behind it's sovereign debt and essentially is in default. This would be an unprecedented financial disaster with global implications. It is ridiculous to even pretend that such an outcome is possible. Fortunately the more capable and qualified members of the Republican Congressional leadership understand this and Bachmann and her Palinesque simple-mindedness will only be taken seriously by the media in their on going search for controversy.

Health care and fiscal responsibility are important issues but the Congress is capable of doing more than two things at the same time and other important issues need to be put on the agenda in spite of the political divisions that make them difficult. Immigration reform is vital yet seems to have fallen off the political radar screen, perhaps because neither side feels that their version can be approved. But the country can't wait. Border states are suffering from crime and violence, public services are being overwhelmed, and cultural divisions are tearing communities apart. The compromises necessary for "comprehensive" immigration reform are obvious, but hyper partisan divisions led by advocacy groups on both sides make compromise politically difficult, if not impossible without a major discovery of political courage and leadership on the part of legislators.

The conservatives oppose any plan that the far Left proposes which contains "a path to citizenship" for the 11-14 million immigrants who are currently in the country illegally. The Left opposes any plan that includes strict border enforcement without such a citizenship remedy. A compromise is possible. It would include immediate border enforcement, with penalties for second offenders. Instead of a "path to citizenship" which opponents call an "amnesty" which would just encourage further illegal immigration, a permanent guest worker status with proper identification could be created. This would allow the current illegal residents to stay but would deny them the rights of citizenship i.e. voting, social services etc. Those individuals who want to seek citizenship would have to apply through normal channels and procedures. Such an arrangement is not a perfect solution but one does not exist. Border control combined with new and tougher penalties for employers who hire new illegal workers would mitigate the worst effects of the problem. However, both anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant advocacy groups would oppose such a solution. Unless and until one political party or the other gains control of both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2012, the nation is likely to languish with the currently out of control immigration situation.

The previously introduced "climate bill" known as Cap and Trade, which was essentially a tax bill designed to reduce climate emissions by penalizing industries based on computations of the volume of pollutants released during production, is dead. Alternative legislation to deal with the environment is possible but has yet to be proposed and skepticism by the public on the actual threat posed by global warming is growing, and attention is centered on job growth and federal spending.

The complicated and contradictory federal tax code needs to be reformed and there may be enough bipartisan support for a simpler, fairer code to be constructed. This should be part of the overall effort to reduce federal deficits and debt.

Still, prospects are not good that much beyond fiscal matters for which the House has a predominate role, will be accomplished. Partisan and ideological animosity is at an extraordinarily high level, as recent quixotic criticism of President Obama by the far Left for not being "liberal enough", demonstrates. The actual positions and influence of the new Tea Party members remain to be seen. Hopefully, the ideological purity that the Left requires will not be replicated on the Right.
 

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