Congress returns to capital, and with it comes gridlock

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 4, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in Congress return to Washington Tuesday after a month-long recess — a month when the economy continued to stumble, the government's fiscal crisis deepened and lawmakers' poll numbers plummeted following the debt-ceiling debacle of July.

Nevertheless, there are few signs that a fresh outbreak of civility will produce quick bipartisan agreements on jobs or fiscal policy. The blowup last week over when President Barack Obama should address a joint session of Congress, resolved after he and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio finally agreed on Thursday night, was further evidence of undiminished partisan and ideological gridlock.

"The lessons that should have been pretty obvious have not been learned," said Norman Ornstein, a veteran congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right research group.

The problem, said Paul Light, professor of government at New York University, is that "members of Congress are ideologically dug in and they can't see their responsibility for the stalemate. These members seem to be unable to grasp the consequence of their intransigence."

After weeks of partisan sniping, Congress and Obama agreed on a sweeping deficit reduction package that became law Aug. 2, hours before the government's borrowing authority was about to run out.

But the war between Republicans and Democrats continues to rage. Last week, Republicans in the House of Representatives offered their own jobs plan _one quickly dismissed by Democrats. Democrats have their own ideas, which Republicans have rejected all year.

The House GOP jobs package involves largely curbing a series of regulations; Democrats are unlikely to accept that approach, and they control the Senate and the White House. Democrats are eager to offer more economic stimulus and a new infrastructure bank to promote investment in such projects, plans that rarely attract much GOP support.

The public is disgusted. An AP-GfK poll taken August 18-22 found that only 12 percent approved of how Congress was handling its job, down from 21 percent in mid-June.

Voters want lawmakers to find middle ground. A McClatchy-Marist survey taken Aug. 2-4, found that among independents, 40 percent thought Republicans were being too conservative, while 40 percent thought Democrats were being too liberal.

The Obama-congressional debt-trimming package aims to cut deficits by $917 billion over the next decade. About $350 billion is to come from defense, with the rest taken from a host of domestic programs.

In addition, a new bipartisan "super-committee" of six Democrats and six Republicans has a goal of finding at least $1.5 trillion more in deficit reduction by Thanksgiving. The committee will hold it's first meeting on Sept. 8.

The super-committee is considered the best hope for bipartisan agreement this fall.

By Nov. 23, it must recommend specifics, and Congress must vote on the recommendations by Dec. 23. If a plan is not approved, $1.2 trillion in automatic across-the-board cuts would be triggered; half from defense, half from non-defense starting in 2013.

Social Security, Medicaid, military and civilian pensions, and most low-income programs would be exempt. Medicare reductions would be restricted to payments to providers, and would be limited.

"The history of super-committees has not been good. But you're sitting on automatic cuts this time. Maybe that will sober them up," Light said.

Others worry that the 12 super-committee members, all named by congressional leaders, are so entrenched in their positions that the panel will deadlock. Democrats, for instance, are pushing to add job creation to the panel's mandate; Republicans insist that spending cuts will boost the economy.

"The Congress watcher in me, the budget nag in me, has an initial reaction that they probably won't accomplish what they want to do because of the partisan lines — no one wants to take on health care and tax reform," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.

"They haven't gotten what the public and the markets are telling them. They're dug in and are vested in their talking points that they haven't been able to break free of."

"Republicans," added Ornstein, "view everything through the prism of 'How do we defeat Obama?'''

Democratic House members are Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, and Xavier Becerra of California, all staunch defenders of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, all major drivers of future deficits.

So are the three Senate Democratic members, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Patty Murray of Washington and Max Baucus of Montana.

Republicans include House GOP Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan. GOP Senators include Jon Kyl of Arizona, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio.

All six Republicans signed a pledge from the conservative Americans for Tax Reform not to raise taxes. Committee Democrats, on the other hand, insist that additional revenues must be part of the deficit reduction discussion.

One reason for hope: Most committee members have some history of compromise; 10 of the 12 voted for the debt-ceiling deal. The liberal Becerra and conservative Toomey opposed it.

Becerra, Baucus, Hensarling and Camp were members of last year's bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, co-chaired by former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. All four voted against the commission's recommendations.

ON THE WEB:

Congressional Budget Office analysis of debt reduction plan

Treasury Department debt report"

McClatchy-Marist poll

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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