Our Do-Nothing Congress

President Obama has indicated that his 2012 re-election campaign will focus on a “do-nothing” Congress.  Now a Washington Times analysis finds that 2011 was, in fact, one of the most inactive congressional years ever. Congress passed only 80 bills — the fewest since 1947, when such records first began being kept — and many of those bills were non-substantive.  The House was far more active than the Senate, which experienced the most futile, unproductive legislative year ever.

I don’t think you can assess the performance of a Congress by simply counting how many new laws were enacted.  Quality, not quantity, should be the measuring rod.  Yet even by that measure, our Congress has been a colossal failure.  Last year saw the United States lose its AAA credit rating and rack up enormous deficits that are adding to our already staggering national debt.  How did our legislative leaders respond?  They created an ad hoc “supercommittee” that allowed them to punt on the issue, the “supercommittee” couldn’t reach agreement, and as a result another year slid by without anything meaningful being done to address our headlong rush to fiscal ruin.

No rational person can defend the pathetic performance of our Congress.  I’m not sure, however, that President Obama stands to benefit much by pointing out how little has been accomplished.  He’s the leader of the government, after all, and he ran in 2008 as someone who could bring people together.  That hasn’t happened.  Emphasizing that Congress is hopelessly deadlocked and inert, while true, just reflects poorly on President Obama’s leadership abilities.  He hasn’t been able to forge a consensus, build support in the country as a whole, or find an alternate way to deal with urgent problems like the debt.  If President Obama is just going to throw up his hands, why should we return him to office?

 

Sayonara To The Senate

Although everyone will be focusing on the presidential election come 2012, the battle for the majority in the Senate will be at least as interesting.

In 2011, a surprising number of Senators announced they would not run for re-election.  The last was Senator Ben Nelson — the Nebraska Senator who was criticized, here and elsewhere, for shabby politicking in connection with the passage of the “health care reform” legislation.  In all, seven Democratic Senators will be retiring, along with two Republicans.  The retirement decisions make the current Democratic majority in the Senate particularly perilous, because Democrats are defending 23 seats this election cycle, compared to only 10 Republican seats that are up for challenge.

The Washington Post‘s political blog, The Fix, rates the most interesting 2012 Senate races, and one of its top 10 is incumbent Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown’s battle to win reelection against the apparent Republican challenger, State Treasurer Josh Mandel.  Ohio is always a bellwether, and the race between Brown and Mandel may tell us a lot about which way the country is leaning.

One thing is certain:  there will be a number of newcomers in the Senate in 2013.  This will be a good thing, because the current Senate has been an embarrassing, inert body that has virtually no accomplishments to its name.

Our Cowardly Senate

Tonight all of the debt ceiling drama is in the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner is hoping to round up enough bills to pass his proposal to increase the debt ceiling and avoid a default.

Meanwhile, what’s happening in the Senate?  Nothing.  The house that likes to call itself “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” has become the World’s Greatest Do-Nothing Body.  They wait, criticize the House of Representatives, try to dodge any responsibility or avoid taking any position that might cause them any kind of political pain, and spend their time pondering political maneuvering at the expense of the good of the country.  Although my inclinations are to favor budget-cutting to get us to fiscal sanity, I think you would be as disappointed in the performance of the majority-Democrat Senate if you were a hard-core progressive.  Why haven’t they independently debated and passed the Senate solution to the problem?  Because they don’t want to commit to anything.

Who knows what will happen with the Boehner plan, or whether our fractured, grossly dysfunctional and leaderless government will allow our country to suffer a needless, ruinous, and impoverishing default.  One thing is clear, however:  it is hard to imagine a more gutless, craven performance than we have seen from the Senate during this entire debt ceiling issue.  They have been a pathetic embarrassment to the concept of responsible representative government.

Not Distracted By The Debt Ceiling Fan Dance

A week has gone by, the August 2 default deadline creeps ever nearer, and still the antic debt ceiling political dance continues. 

It’s like an old fan dance, where the flashing fans of the dancer seek to tantalize while hiding what lies beneath.  The Senate has contributed the ill-defined “Gang of Six” proposal.  The House Republicans passed “cut, cap, and balance.”  President Obama continues to insist on a “balanced approach.”  Everybody uses every opportunity to trumpet that everybody else is behaving abominably and making outrageous proposals.  And the latest report is that the President is sitting down with House Republicans to try to cut a deal

Is real progress being made?  Who knows?  Appallingly, everything is done behind closed doors, with no public input.  How can anyone be comfortable with politicians making deals in private on this huge issue?  And most of the purported “savings” and “cuts” and “revenue enhancements” seem to be vague, generic promises to delegate the task of making actual changes to the same congressional committees that have, for years, proven themselves unable to restrain spending, exercise prudence, and govern responsibly.

I’m not going to be distracted by the waving fans.  I want this embarrassing dance to produce some real changes to how things are done.

Our Gilded Congress

Congressional disclosure forms were released yesterday and they show that our elected public servants are doing very well, indeed.

The wealth in Congress knows no party-line boundaries; Republicans and Democrats alike are doing well.  According to the reports, the Minority Leader and Majority Leader in the Senate are both multimillionaires who saw their wealth rise in 2010.  So did the the Speaker of the House and the House Minority Leader.  Other Members of Congress reported on gifts they received and, in one case, a member of Congress paid herself some hefty interest on a loan she made to her own campaign committee.

There are exceptions, of course, and I am not suggesting that only paupers should be elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives.  But when Americans wonder why Members of Congress, at times, seem out of touch with bread-and-butter issues like jobs and housing prices, they might do well to reflect on the vast personal wealth in Congress and the deferential and preferential treatment our elected representatives receive as a matter of course.  It’s easy to downplay the effect of high gasoline prices or unsold homes in middle-class neighborhoods if you have millions of dollars in personal investments to reflect upon as a fellow Senator gives you a ride on her private jet.

New Blood

Recently three Senators — Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas and Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut — have announced that they are not seeking re-election in 2012.

Their departure ensures that more new blood will be coming to the Senate, continuing a recent trend that has seen about one-third of the current Senators take office since 2008.  Observers believe that still more of the current Senators, because of their advanced age, presumed difficult re-election challenges, or both, will decide not to seek run again.  And, if the 2010 election is any indication, in 2012 voters may decide, again, to toss out the incumbents in favor of new faces and increase the roster of new Senators still further.

News stories about departing Senators always seem to have the theme that their departure will be a real loss for the institution, further reducing prospects for bipartisan problem-solving and “working across the aisle.”  That seems like “inside the Beltway” thinking to me.  Anyone who thinks our Congress generally, or our Senate specifically, has performed capably over the past few years of irresponsible spending, corruption, and sleazy backroom deal-cutting is applying absurdly low standards to assess actual performance.  There is no reason to think that new Senators can’t, or won’t, do a better job.

Making A Statement And Fulfilling A Promise

The House of Representatives, now under Republican control, has passed legislation to repeal the “health care reform” legislation passed by the last Congress.  Democrats in the Senate, who control that chamber, are saying that repeal legislation will never come to the floor for a vote — and, of course, President Obama would be expected to veto any repeal legislation that would happen to reach his desk.

So, was the House vote a waste of time?  I don’t think so.  By voting to repeal the “health care reform” legislation, the Republican majority was fulfilling a campaign promise.  We should applaud politicians who do so, not condemn them.  The general public would have a more favorable view of politicians generally if more politicians actually tried to keep their promises.  By acting so promptly, the Republicans are demonstrating that elections have consequences.  And, of course, you never know whether political pressure will build on the Senate to consider some form of repeal legislation.  If Democrats in the Senate consider the legislation to be such a great success, why should they duck a vote on its proposed repeal?

Now that the Republicans in the House have met one of their promises, they need to turn to working on the others.  If I had a vote, I would urge them to focus on deficit reduction and a careful analysis of potential federal spending cuts.

Our Senate, Our Shame

It is all so predictable, and yet still so infuriating.  Yesterday Senate Democrats unveiled a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that would fund the government through fiscal year 2011.  The bill numbers 1,924 pages.  It includes more than $8 billion in earmarks for some 6,000 pet projects for Senators.  According to the Washington Post report on the legislation, it includes the familiar litany of pork barrel projects — millions for non-profits associated with deceased politicians, hundreds of thousands of dollars to study port dredging and swine management, and on and on.

In this instance, the Senate has failed to pass individual appropriations bills, which is one of its most basic responsibilities.  So, Senate Democrats have followed their game plan from the appalling debacle of the “health care reform” legislation, have combined a dozen individual spending bills into one massive bill that no outsider has had a chance to read, and then have announced that the legislation has to be enacted by the end of the lame duck session or the government will shut down due to lack of funds.  Why not?  Process and public scrutiny be damned.  They are the Senate, after all, and they can do what they want.  They obviously believe that they don’t need to concern themselves with the unmistakable message in favor of fiscal restraint that the voters sent on Election Day, or the effect of this tawdry, trillion-dollar exercise in vote-trading on the United States and its staggering debt problems.

The Senate used to fancy itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”  Those days are long since past.  As led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the current Senate appears to be a motley collection of political hustlers who avoid the hard work of legislating in favor of cheap theatrics and gimmicks designed to increase their leverage for getting federal money for their cronies.  At bottom, they just want to get theirs, and this obscene omnibus budget maneuver gives them a shot at doing so.  They have the souls of pirates, rather than the souls of statesmen, and our beleaguered country is suffering mightily as a result.

Lame Ducks

On November 15 Congress will reconvene for a “lame duck” session to try to complete unfinished business before the end of the term.  This year, the lame duck session is especially lame, with dozens of Members of the House of Representatives and several Senators booted out by their disaffected constituents.  This article summarizes some of the issues confronting the lame duck Congress — and when you look at the list you begin to understand, perhaps, why voters were so frustrated.

For example, this Congress has not passed any spending bill to specifically authorize expenditures by the various agencies of the federal government.  In order to prevent a general government shutdown, they will need to enact some kind of omnibus, catch-all spending bill.  As we all know from the “stimulus” legislation and “health care reform” legislation passed earlier by this Congress, the bigger the bill, the more opportunity there is for Members of Congress to insert spending for pet projects or political cronies.  This Congress’ failure to deal with spending in the proper way, by debating specific bills in an orderly fashion and allowing opportunities for amendments, has helped to crystallize the sense of rampant corruption and backroom deal-cutting that, I think, contributed so mightily to the electorate’s “throw the bums out” mentality earlier this week.  Will the lame ducks be able to resist one last opportunity to insert a sweetheart deal in some unreviewed provision of a sprawling bill that undoubtedly will be rushed to the floor and considered without an opportunity for amendment?

Other issues also are looming.  Should the Bush-era tax cuts be extended, and if so, how?   Should the impending cuts in Medicare reimbursements to doctors be avoided or modified?  Should unemployment compensation benefits be extended again, and if so for how long?  Should a $250 check be sent to all Social Security recipients?  (The latter proposal, if adopted, will simply confirm the complete spending irresponsibility of this failed Congress.)  Or will the lame ducks decide to do as little as possible, and concentrate instead on a higher priority — finding out how to keep some kind of job in Washington before their terms expire?

A Chance To Do Some Comparison Shopping

The 2010 midterm elections will leave the United States House of Representatives controlled by Republicans and the United States Senate controlled by Democrats.  It is unusual for one House of Congress to be controlled by one party while the other House is controlled by the other party — and it will give American voters a real opportunity to do some comparison shopping.

We should be able to compare how each party runs their House during the same political environment.  Which issues will get the most attention in the House, and which in the Senate?  Will there be significant differences in their focus?  Will they respond to the inevitable crises in different ways?  How will they conduct their affairs and discharge their duties?  Will robust debate and floor amendments be permitted by the rules in one House, but not in the other?  Will congressional hearings and fact-finding really address the nuts and bolts of issues, or will it be used for grandstanding?  Will members of the minority party be treated with decency and respect and be given a chance to meaningfully participate?  Will the legislators roll up their sleeves and discharge their constitutional obligation to do things like establish budgets and pass appropriations bills?

I, for one, would like to see Members of Congress stop trying to become media celebrities and instead focus on doing their jobs — so that Congress actually will fulfill its constitutional legislative role in a meaningful way.  During the next two years of a Congress divided, we will see, from their actions, how the Senate Democrats and House Republicans actually attempt to govern.  That is a lot more instructive than listening to the latest set of talking points.

Thoughts On The Framers

The networks are saying that the U.S. House of Representatives will flip to the Republicans, but the Senate, in all likelihood, will stay with a Democratic majority.

If I recall my high school Civics class correctly, the House was supposed to reflect the passions of the American people, but the Senate was supposed to be largely immune from those passions.  In this election, it looks like the House results are reflecting the passions, as the Framers intended.  In many states, the House Democrats who voted in favor of broad expansions of federal governmental power and significant deficit spending are being wiped out.  The message in favor of a smaller, less intrusive, less costly federal government seems clear.

In the Senate, the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body has not been quite as driven by those voter passions.  New, conservative candidates like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have won in some races, but in other states the voters have rejected some of the more fringe-oriented candidates — like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.  Of course, the design of the Constitution means that more than 60 of the Senate did not stand for election in this cycle.  These current Senators will deal with the new members of the Senate but also will be thinking, hard, about what the political climate will be when they stand for reelection in two years, or four years.

The Constitution was carefully designed to have a bicameral legislature with houses with different interests and different perspectives.  In this election, that careful design seems to have worked as intended.

It’s All About Me

This primary season has seen a number of establishment Republicans lose to “Tea Party” upstarts.  Some of those losing candidates have reacted with class, some have reacted with petulance, and still others have simply refused to accept the will of the voters.  Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is the latest to fall into the last category.  Having lost in the Republican primary to challenger Joe Miller, she has now announced that she will run as a write-in candidate.

Murkowski, of course, couches her decision as some kind of noble personal sacrifice.  She says she is listening to the “will of the constituency” and feels a “responsibility” because she has heard an “outpouring of support and concern — concern about the future of the state of Alaska and our representation here in the Senate.”  Does anyone in Alaska actually buy such absurd spin?  We all know the real reason Murkowski has made her decision:  she wants to keep her cushy job and has an inflated sense of her own capabilities.   When your senatorial days are spent listening to the whispered blandishments of lobbyists and toadying supporters, I suppose that kind of reaction is inevitable.  But what has Murkowski actually done in her eight years in the Senate?  Read her bio information on her website and see for yourself whether she has a record of such stunning legislative accomplishment that her return to the Senate is crucially important for Alaska.

Of course, voters in Murkowski’s own party have already had the opportunity to decide whether her return to the Senate is essential — and obviously they decided it wasn’t.  Murkowski is simply too selfish to accept that legitimate decision.  Her decision in that regard is just another affirmation of the out-of-control egotism and unresponsiveness of so many of our elected representatives.  I hope Alaska voters recognize that and send her a message she cannot ignore come November.

Older vs. Newer In The Ohio Democratic Party

Ohio’s primary election is only a few days away.  It’s kind of a dull election (although people in Columbus should care deeply about Issue 2, which would move the “constitutional casino” away from downtown).  The only statewide primary that has received much attention is the contest between Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

I’m not sure there is a lot of disagreement between Fisher and Brunner on the issues, for the average voter at least.  (Take a look at the “issues” pages of their websites — here and here — and judge for yourself.)  Either of them would be a reliable vote for President Obama’s programs and for the Democratic leadership in the Senate.  If there is a significant difference between them, it is more a difference of style and perception.

Fisher seems to have been around in public life forever.  The “About Lee” page on his campaign website apparently is sensitive to his age, because it doesn’t give his birth date.  (Another sign that Fisher may be sensitive about his age can be found in his campaign photos, which make it look like he has been liberally doused in Man Tan.)   The bio page indicates that Fisher was first elected to the Ohio General Assembly in 1980, served as a legislator for 10 years, was elected Ohio’s Attorney General in 1990, served for four years in that position, then worked in a non-profit until he became Ted Strickland’s running mate in 2006.  So far as his website indicates, then, Fisher has worked in government and non-profit jobs since 1980.  I’m not sure that he has ever worked for a private business.

Brunner clearly is younger than Fisher — although her website bio doesn’t give her birthdate, either — and she spent a considerable part of her career as an attorney in private practice here in Columbus.  She was elected to the Franklin County C0mmon Pleas Court in 2000 (interestingly, her bio describes Franklin County as a “largely conservative county” even though the lion’s share of Franklin County voters live in Columbus, where the city government is dominated by Democrats) and then was elected Secretary of State in 2006, when the Democrats pretty much ran the table in non-judicial statewide elections.

Fisher has raised far more money than Brunner.  His campaign seems more traditional, with rallies and TV ads.  Brunner is more of a “new Democrat” who seems to follow the Daily Kos approach.  Perhaps because she is cash-strapped, Brunner appears to have taken more advantage of new communications forms.  I gave money to a Democratic candidate two years ago and, perhaps as a result, ended up on Brunner’s campaign e-mail list.  At least once a week,  I get an e-mail from the Brunner campaign asking for money, calling on a Republican to apologize for some perceived outrage, or breathlessly describing Brunner’s purchase of an old school bus for about $2000 to use on her bus tour of Ohio.  I’m not sure precisely what Twitter is, but I imagine she uses that medium, too.

In the battle between older and newer, who will win?  I’m not sure anyone outside of the campaigns really cares very much.  According to the latest polls, Fisher has opened a commanding lead — but we will get the real answer on Tuesday.

Wall Street, Main Street, and 401(k) Plans

In the wake of the Massachusetts special election loss, President Obama has struck a more populist tune.  He and his supporters have been talking about “getting our money back” from “fat-cat bankers” on Wall Street who took TARP money.  Siding with “Main Street” rather than “Wall Street” is a time-honored theme in American politics.

I wonder whether the “Wall Street vs. Main Street” pitch still has resonance, however.  The reality is that many working Americans have 401(k) plans or some other form of retirement savings or pension plan that is invested in stocks and bonds.  According to the Investment Company Institute website, in 2008 49.8 million Americans had 401(k) plans that held an estimated $2.4 trillion in assets.  In short, lots of American families are invested with Wall Street.  They watch the Dow and the S&P 500 and hope that their 401(k) plans will appreciate in value and allow them to retire earlier and wealthier.

As a result, in the 1930s or 1950s there may have been a bright-line distinction between “Main Street” and “Wall Street,” but that bright-line exists no longer.  People may be upset by the size of the bonuses paid by banks that took TARP money, but I think many Americans not only aren’t reflexively opposed to Wall Street bankers, they hope that those investment bankers do their jobs well and create wealth that their 401(k) plans will share in.

If I am right in that perception, then politicians who want to rip into Wall Street should proceed with extreme caution.  In the last few days, the stock market has fallen at the same time President Obama has attacked Wall Street bankers and Senators have declared they won’t vote for a second term for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.  It may be coincidence, but it may cause many Americans to wonder why the President and the Senate seem to be playing politics with their retirement funds.

The Nebraska “Compromise” (Fin)

Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson — who agreed to vote in favor of cloture of Senate debate in exchange for a number of special provisions in the “health care reform” bill, including one that required the federal government to forever pay Nebraska’s share of increased costs attributable to proposed expansion of Medicaid — has retreated in the face of a firestorm of criticism.  Nelson has sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying that the deal has been misunderstood and misrepresented, that Nelson never intended Nebraska to get special treatment, and that the provision should just be eliminated from the bill to avoid any further misunderstandings.  Reid, who struck the devil’s bargain with Nelson in the first place in order to secure Nelson’s vote, probably chuckled when he got the letter.

Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson

This development brings to a close the sorry spectacle of what I have called the Nebraska “Compromise” and what others have called the “Cornhusker Kickback.”  By contending in his letter that it has all been a misunderstanding, Nelson shows himself as duplicitous as well as being an unprincipled hack who was willing to peddle his vote for some special deals for his home state.  He ends up with the worst of all worlds — his crass political machinations were exposed, he was harshly criticized in Nebraska and elsewhere for his crude opportunism, and ultimately he was forced to beat a sniveling retreat and give up on the special deal that made him the target of irate comments in the first place.  Presumably he will now meekly vote for a bad bill, because to do otherwise would demonstrate that his prior vote was, in fact, contingent upon the existence of the provision requiring special treatment for Nebraska.

The only good thing about the sordid story of the Nebraska “Compromise” is that it revealed for all to see the culture of corruption found in Washington, D.C. and showed that a public outcry can force a change.  It is useful to send politicians the message that American taxpayers are paying attention to their shenanigans.  Let’s hope that Nebraska voters remember the embarrassment their Senator brought to their state and vote Nelson out of office if he decides to seek reelection in 2012.

The Nebraska “Compromise” (Cont.)

The Nebraska “Compromise” (Cont.)

The Nebraska “Compromise” (Cont.)

The Nebraska “Compromise”