This session of Congress is finishing up much as the previous session did – with a flurry of activity to meet deadlines for actions that have been postponed several times already. Sandwiched between lengthy vacations known as recesses have been bouts of actual hurried Congressional action necessitated by such trivial pursuits as passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling. Along the way, we have all been treated to fits of hostage taking over several threats to shut down the federal government and a total failure to pass any legislation to create jobs in a faltering economy, despite a comprehensive bill being produced by the Administration to do just that.
Other than taking vacations, the Republican controlled House of Representatives excelled primarily at taking votes to appeal the Affordable Care Act, knowing it would neither pass the Senate nor be signed by the President. They also managed to name a few Post Offices, despite the fact that they are trying to put that institution out of business. For its part, the Democrat controlled Senate reached new peaks of futility as the Republican minority brought the use of the filibuster to heights never before seen in that body. Describing this Congress as gridlocked is an understatement. How so many of the participants in this debacle managed to retain their seats boggles the mind.
In order to keep the government functioning until the election earlier this month, agreement was reached between the Administration and Congress that would result in Bush administration tax cuts for all expiring on December 31 and automatic cuts being made to spending on defense and domestic budgets. This resulted after a Super Committee composed of representatives of both the House and Senate from each party could not reach agreement on a better solution. Thus, the whole situation was punted until after the election to be resolved or not by the lame duck Congress. Resolving the outstanding tax issues in addition to the specifics of how the budget cuts will be implemented has been labeled the dreaded “fiscal cliff” – lending urgency to the situation that apparently was not sufficiently urgent during the previous discussions to warrant resolution then.
The Supreme Court, in the meantime, ruled that the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it has been called by many, is, in fact Constitutional. Hopefully, this and the re-election of President Obama (and defeat of “repeal” Romney” will lessen the attempts at repeal in Congress, allowing further implementation of that legislation. In addition to re-electing the President to another term, results of the election on Congress were somewhat mixed. Democrats retain control of the Senate with a slightly larger majority. However, they still do not have the 61 members necessary to defeat filibusters under current Senate rules. Meanwhile, despite the fact that Democrats received significantly more votes than Republicans in House races, the Republicans were able to maintain the majority in that body. Many blame gerrymandering of House districts necessitated by changes in states’ populations in the 2010 census for this, as many states fell under GOP legislative control via the disastrous (from the perspective of the Democrats) results of the 2010 midterm elections.
The potential for another session of gridlock remains. The President’s position has been strengthened by his victory, the Supreme Court decision in favor of the health care law, and polls showing that the public approves of his main objective of placing more of the tax burden on the upper income group. However, with GOP representatives still in control in the House, passage of anything from that body is anything but assured. The Senate also remains problematic, as there are enough GOP votes to maintain filibusters and continue to delay approval of presidential appointees that require it.
Despite agreeing to certain guidelines for the budget cuts that would be included in any sequestration should the revenue side of the discussion fail to resolve the deficit problem, there have been very loud, primarily GOP, rumblings about decreasing the impact on defense. This would require even bigger cuts to domestic programs, including the social safety net programs. Proposals have been made by the House Budget Committee, chaired by GOP VP nominee Paul Ryan, to cut costs in Medicare by making it a voucher program for future seniors and to turn Medicaid into a block grant program administered by the states. President Bush proposed privatizing Social Security. Proposals have also been put forth to tinker with cost of living adjustments for Social Security and age eligibility for Social Security and Medicare. Food Stamps, Unemployment benefits and other programs benefitting the most vulnerable among us would also potentially be on the chopping block. Such proposals never seem to totally disappear, they just fade into the background until somebody thinks they can get it passed at a more opportune time.
Such additional cuts would affect lower income people much more than the wealthy, and increase inequality in income and wealth throughout our society – something which has been ongoing ever since we started this whole theory of trickle-down economics. These policies should be more accurately called trickle-up economics because of the effect such policies have had on increasing income and wealth accumulation by the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. The theory that tax cuts for the wealthy will result in the benefits to our economy, increasing jobs and prosperity for all, that are claimed by their proponents have not been achieved in reality. Rather than growing the economy by letting the beneficiaries of the cuts be true job creators, they have allowed many to amass great fortunes while outsourcing good paying jobs to foreign workers abroad. What else explains the huge increases in incomes and wealth at the top while the rest of us have seen wage stagnation for decades?
The Senate needs to be fixed so that a repeat of the past two years doesn’t occur. Mitch McConnell went out of his way to say the main priority of his party for the last two years was to make sure President Obama was not re-elected. They tried their damnedest to make sure that happened – obstructing appointments at a record level and filibustering any jobs bills put forth. They failed. The voters rejected their message and overcame their huge Citizens United campaign spending advantage, their attempts at voter suppression and the campaign themes of their candidates. It is long past time for the Senate to operate as a functioning legislative body instead of as a roadblock to progress.
Likewise, despite their numerical advantage, the House Republicans must realize that they stand to gain little in future elections if they choose to rule by refusing to compromise or listen to the wishes of their constituents. There is a reason why Congress has record low job approval ratings. We elect them to pass legislation and set policies that will benefit us as a nation, not to dictate to us some agenda that we do not want because it is too compassionless and/or simply does not achieve its stated goals.
I hope this lame duck session of Congress can achieve something that they refused to do before the election – a definitive direction forward for our country that takes into account the health and wellbeing of all its citizens, our economy and how we deal with the rest of the world. Austerity is not that path. Revenues must be raised to pay for much needed programs and defense spending that is not necessary to meet our needs must be cut. Fine-tuning how programs achieve their goals to do so more efficiently is always something that needs to be done. Cutting them just because we don’t want to pay for them, while ignoring the impact on those they serve, is a step backward, not forward. All these decisions will likely not be made before the first of the new year, but hopefully more progress will be made than has been made in this one.