Congress is pathetic.
Quick action last week to free up money to end furloughs of air traffic controllers removed the last shred of pretense that Congress was capable of rational behavior.
The process known as sequestration required across-the-board cuts from a host of government agencies. Sequestration itself was the product of policymaking paralysis that has reduced Congress to a toy for special interests.
The sequestration cuts were pathetic on several levels. First, they reflected an unwillingness to make choices about spending priorities. Second, they hurt important programs that people depend on. Third, they imposed budget cuts that will slow economic growth and prolong unemployment.
Sequestration was a gimmick devised in the summer of 2011 to force Congress to take action to resolve budget differences. At the time the thinking was that across-the-board cuts would be objectionable across the board; they were such a bad idea that Republicans and Democrats would feel compelled to reach a budget agreement. Democrats would not be willing to see programs for children or the elderly cut; Republicans would not be willing to subject the Pentagon to draconian cuts. Together, they would never allow sequestration to happen, or so the thinking went.
That Congress is pathetic does not mean that the two sides are equally so. Scholars, historians and journalists who have been observing the present Congress have been forced to conclude that the ideological rigidity of Republicans, and especially the unprecedented abuse of the filibuster by Senate Republicans, have created unparalleled gridlock that Democrats have not been able to break through. Essentially, Republicans have adopted a posture demanding that they get their way or they will shut down the system. For them compromise is defeat. They are willing for the cleaver of sequestration to whack indiscriminately at the body of the federal government because government is the enemy. Not for them is the process of thinking beyond the word no.
But, it turns out, government isn’t the enemy. At least it’s not the enemy of businessmen trying to fly to Atlanta on time or a congressman trying to get back to Washington after a weekend in the home district. They need their air traffic controllers on the job so they don’t have to twiddle their thumbs as they wait for connections in Chicago. So they rushed through legislation authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration to use its money in such a way to make sure air traffic controllers were not furloughed and flights would be on time.
Kids in Head Start? Well, never mind. National parks? They can open in June. Health, education, environmental protection, civilian Pentagon employees? Furloughs are the order of the day, which means less money in the pockets of thousands of employees and curtailed services for ordinary people.
That Congress has become a festival of selfishness is now evident. There have other exceptions designed to appease special interests, such as the meat industry, which was afraid that the furlough of meat inspectors would cause business to slow. No doubt there will be more exceptions.
These cuts are all the more infuriating because economists and politicians are gradually realizing the terrible toll that policies of austerity have taken in the United States, but especially in Europe. One new worry is that cuts in defense caused by the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with sequestration cuts, are going to deal a significant blow to the economy, even though not having to spend money on war ought to be a good thing. If some of that money were shifted over to a major program of road building, bridge repairs, railroad improvements, scientific research, energy innovation and education, the nation would begin both to lift itself out of the doldrums and lay the foundation for future growth.
But Congress is incapable of making those choices because the Republicans, who found themselves in the minority in 2008 and foresaw years in the wilderness, decided instead to thwart the action of the majority. Of course, when the toll of Congress’s failure began to be felt by important people riding in airplanes, then Congress miraculously found itself able to act.
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