Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Coming Congressional Gridlock

Two observations can be made about the U.S. Congress, which many voters will agree with.

First, the approval rating of our Legislative Branch is abysmally low. Second, the legislative process is out of control.

The Republican dominance under President Bush made such a mess of things that the 2006 and 2008 elections produced that rare occurrence, a veto-proof Congress with both chambers controlled by one party. One could have hoped that this new arrangement would have produced decisive, effective legislation addressing the country’s numerous problems. Instead the Democrats produced two gargantuan bills vastly expanding the federal bureaucracy; a number of slush funds or bailout funds; and unheard of budget deficits.

The very size and complexity of the “reform bills” amply demonstrated that the current members of Congress are no longer capable of performing their main function, which is to produce meaningful and coherent legislation.

During the process of assembling the “major achievements” of this Congress it became painfully obvious members were voting on bills they had neither written nor read, larded with a variety of provisions favoring special interests, and creating a web of new functions, obligations and duties the national government cannot hope to discharge with any degree of effectiveness.

Hence the statement, repeated by many prospective voters concerning their intentions for the coming elections: “Anything but an incumbent!”

Such intentions have been voiced before in our election history, and were often revealed to have more bark than bite. There were times, however, when the electorate did in fact “throw the bastards out”. This might be one of those.

If political frustration was the only factor, voter anger could be dismissed as inconsequential. But this time there is real economic hardship as well. Unemployment, stagnant wages and rising income inequality are still in full force, and the “recovery” from the Great Recession is proving more questionable every month that passes. In fact the start of an economic “double dip” may well coincide with the election campaign.

This, paradoxically, may help.

The two established parties are too entrenched to be easily gotten rid of, and each will end up with, approximately, a third of the seats. The remaining third might well end up, if things get bad enough, in the hands of the new ABI (Anything But Incumbent) crowd. A number of those will still belong, nominally at least, to the traditional parties. But the mandate they will receive from constituents will no longer be satisfied by the old methods and ideologies.

This diversity of mandates, together with the lack of any strong majority, will preclude the passage of “monster bills” such as those over health care and finance. Even a pure pork “stimulus” will not make it, because of the fiscal rectitude stance that many in Congress are now adopting. In fact the long accepted legislative approaches might now be inadequate to pass anything at all.

The only exception is what could be called the “one-liner bill”.
Congress’ inability to deal with issues does not eliminate them. The electorate will still demand that something be done. To achieve both congressional consensus and electoral support such legislation must be simple, clear, targeted and effective immediately. It must not deal with broad, complex domains but with a single, obvious problem. Once properly formulated, such “one-liner” legislation will pass, take effect and deliver visible results. From there more similar initiatives will flow, and the now broken trust of the voters in their representatives could begin to heal.

Some examples of “one-liners”:

A progressive countervailing duty or sales tax on imports from countries engaging in predatory trade practices.

In parallel, a domestic investment tax credit for corporations setting up job-producing facilities in the United States (similar to John Kennedy’s 1961 initiative)

A transaction tax on excess leverage and trading frequency to prevent more Wall Street crashes.

A full freeze on the hiring, salaries, and other benefits of federal employees.

Each such bill will chip away at our problems and move Congress away from its current dysfunctional state. Later, if emergency conditions no longer prevail, such single items can be integrated into wider frameworks.


Rick Supplee said...

Yes, Congress has been so broken to give us Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, two bills that put a huge weight that drags down the economy. But your suggestion of a tax on Wall Street transactions is just as bad. That would do nothing to prevent a financial crises. The Financial Crises was caused by excess borrowing and there is not fix for humans doing that. We need freedom and not your damaging taxes.

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