Over the Cliff and Back

John Boehner

On Thursday, the Capitol was full of happy people. The trauma of the 112th Congress — which ended 36 hours after yet another frenzied round of kick-the-financial-can — was starting to lift. It was a new day. Hope sprang eternal.

The new Congress was being sworn in. The 14 new senators and 84 new members of Congress walked around the Capitol in a giddy daze. Everywhere you looked, you saw family and friends and supporters who had come to Washington to celebrate their victory. They couldn’t stop smiling.

In the Speaker’s Lobby, where reporters buttonhole members of Congress as they make their way to the House floor, I spoke to Ann McLane Kuster, a new Democratic congresswoman from New Hampshire. “What makes you think the new Congress will function any better than the previous one?” I asked. “The voters have instructed us to solve problems,” she replied firmly.

Tom Rice, a new Republican congressman from South Carolina, said, “I would like to try to push the country forward.” But you didn’t have to drill down very far to learn that Rice’s definition of moving the country forward was very different from Kuster’s. Rice favors a balanced budget amendment; Kuster wants higher taxes for the wealthy.

I bumped into Hawaii’s new senator, Brian Schatz, who replaced the late Daniel Inouye toward the end of the last Congressional session. “The fiscal-cliff vote shows that it is possible to have a bipartisan vote,” he actually said.

If only.

What the fiscal cliff vote showed, in fact, is just how rudderless and polarized Washington has become. The only way Congress could end the last debt-ceiling crisis was by creating a cliff so steep — with its combination of tax increases and deep spending cuts — that both parties would be forced to find an acceptable middle ground.

Instead, they punted again. Though President Obama got a watered-down version of his tax hikes for the wealthy, the spending cuts were pushed off into the future, infuriating many Republicans. Because Republicans will no longer negotiate with Obama, he had to outsource the negotiations to his vice president, Joe Biden. Speaker John Boehner was humiliated by his own party, of which two-thirds voted against the deal in the House. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, quickly promised a new fight over the next debt-ceiling vote.

That’s less than two months away. After which, we’ll hit the fiscal cliff — again. They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same action, and expecting a different result. By that measure, Congress has lost its mind.

“Where is the leadership?” asked Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, echoing the sentiment of much of the country. Schultz had been trying for months to rouse the country into thinking hard about why our political system has run aground. “We can’t do this too many more times,” he said, referring to crises like the fiscal cliff. “We are sapping the country’s spirit. Our political system is broken.” He blamed, among other things, the practice of gerrymandering and the big money flowing into campaigns.

He’s right. The incentives to put country over party have vanished. Elected officials who cross party leaders get stripped of their committee assignments — as happened to four Republican legislators this week who were not viewed as “team players.” The combination of gerrymandered districts and a primary system that empowers a small coterie of party hard-liners has meant that representatives and senators who don’t toe the party line get booted out of office. Mickey Edwards, the former congressman from Oklahoma, has written a book, “The Parties Versus The People,” in which he proposes that we move to an open primary system, where all candidates, of every persuasion, run — with the top two finishers facing off in the general election. That would help loosen the grip party extremists now have on their representatives.

Thursday night, after I got home, I had a phone conversation with Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican who first won election in 2010 by campaigning as a modern-day fiscal conservative. That is to say, he believed, as he told me, “that we have a spending problem not a revenue problem.”

But after he got to Congress, he dug deeper, and came to what he calls “a data-driven, analytic conclusion.” Namely: spending cuts alone could not eliminate the deficit. The country needed more tax revenue as well. He showed his data to everyone he could on his side of the aisle. They nodded politely and continued to insist on not raising taxes. Rigell did not revert back, however. “We have to have the courage to critique and refine our own platform,” he said. “That isn’t weakness. It is intellectual honesty.”

I asked him if he had been punished by leadership for his courageous views. “No,” he said.

Give them time, I thought.

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