A permanent cure is needed for U.S. gridlock

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 17, 2013 - 6:21 PM

Much-ballyhooed deal sets up another impasse in early 2014.

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Vicki Maturo, of Culver City, Calif., protested against the government shutdown outside the federal building in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013.

Photo: Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

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The self-congratulatory speeches by members of Congress this week were a joke.

Anyone tuning in, particularly as members of the Senate patted their own backs for their bipartisan deal to end the debt ceiling/shutdown standoff, might have thought that the elusive “grand bargain” to balance the nation’s long-term budget issues at last had been inked.

Instead, what squeaked through Congress late Wednesday — just hours before the United States flirted with self-inflicted economic catastrophe by breaching the debt ceiling — merely closed the curtain for a very short time on the governing-by-crisis drama plaguing our nation.

All that this week’s deal did was fund the federal government through Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling just high enough to extend U.S. borrowing authority until Feb. 7. While the nation didn’t fall into the abyss, neither did it beat any kind of responsible retreat.

Instead, Congress authorized taking a step or two away from the cliff while setting the nation up to skate right back to the edge in early 2014.

Pardon us for not feeling like it’s time to pop the champagne corks — or to credulously swallow promises that this time will be different because the Senate deal set up a bipartisan committee to hammer out a long-term budget blueprint by mid-December.

How gullible does Congress think voters are? It’s been only two years since the so-called supercommittee, a bipartisan panel put in place during the 2011 debt ceiling deal, failed miserably, even with the threat of sequestration cuts to defense and domestic spending kicking in if it didn’t reach agreement.

No such budgetary penalty hangs over the work of this new committee. More troubling is that the standoff that led to the supercommittee’s failure — Republicans’ reluctance to consider new tax revenue — still exists. So assurances that this is the “we really mean it” committee ring hollow, especially given how little time it has to smooth over longstanding differences.

It’s long past time to diagnose the extreme political tactics that led to this latest standoff for what they are — a form of congressional cancer — and to demand a cure.

This week’s shutdown was the latest recurrence of a political disease that shouldn’t exist: using the basic operations of government to pry concessions from the opposing party without having the political clout to do so. While Democrats have employed this tactic in state government (Wisconsin legislators’ hiding out in Illinois to hold up votes on measures they didn’t like), Republicans at the federal level have taken it to new and dangerous levels.

The GOP used the debt ceiling as leverage in the 2011 standoff that led to the sequestration cuts. The fiscal cliff crisis that kicked off 2013 also needlessly went down to the wire as the GOP tried to use impending income tax increases as leverage.

These tactics may be cheered by the GOP’s narrow base, but beyond the base, the party runs of the risk of looking like it’s saying “to hell with the democratic process; we’re going to do what we want.” The GOP controls the House, but that’s just one-half of one of the federal government’s three branches. A my-way-or-the-highway approach to governing isn’t realistic.

The economic cost of this latest impasse — $24 billion shaved off the GDP and a total price tag of $150 billion in lost output from gridlock dating from 2009 — ought to convince both parties that stronger medicine than a committee is needed.

Abolishing the debt ceiling ought to be at the top of the list. Most countries do not have a debt ceiling. Nor does the Constitution require one, a misconception that sometimes surfaces in the debate over the issue.

Contrary to another common misconception, lifting the debt ceiling does not authorize new spending. Instead, it simply allows the government to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized.

Congress is in fact its own debt ceiling. Its members decide how much to tax and spend and how much to borrow to cover the difference. Responsible budgeting is the way to balance the books, not some artificial ceiling, especially one that’s been weaponized.

  • HOW THEY VOTED

    All but one member of the Minnesota congressional delegation voted responsibly this week to end the government shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. Democrats who voted for the deal were: Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Rick Nolan, Collin Peterson and Tim Walz. Republican Reps. Erik Paulsen and John Kline also voted yes. Only Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann voted against the deal.

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