Congress appears out of touch with everyday world realities

January 6, 2012 By    

Call it legislative brinksmanship. Call it gridlock. Call it stalemate. Call it a standoff. But please, whatever you do, call the year over for this Congress.

Up until the very end of 2011, congressional leaders were still debating. At press time, the issue being debated was whether or not members of the House and Senate could agree on a Senate-passed bill that extended the payroll tax cut for another two months, as well as extended unemployment benefits and prevented a drop in Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors.

The issue was further complicated by a provision regarding presidential action on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

In a last-minute maneuver, while not actually voting on the Senate plan, the House voted to express its opposition to the Senate bill while at the same time appointing conference committee members to try and force the Senate to come back and negotiate a full-year extension of the payroll tax cut, the unemployment benefit extension and the “doc fix” for physician reimbursement in Medicare. The result of this was unclear at press time.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, complained that the two-month time frame of the bill only punts the issue to early this year and that it is a short-term fix Congress will soon have to address again. Whether or not he is correct on the merits of the legislation, he is right about the process. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only way this Congress works.

Recall last April Congress came close to shutting down over the lack of an agreement on the federal budget. The drama that ensues over its increasing willingness to shut down the government every time it can’t reach agreement not only undermines Americans’ faith in government but also hurts our economy.

If it can’t even fund the government each year in a timely fashion, as it is required to do, maybe its members are in the wrong job.

Then Congress was willing to push our government into default and jeopardize our credit rating through its fight to the death over whether to raise the debt ceiling.

While the world’s financial markets watched as the United States came close to a default, Congress struck a last-minute deal. Unfortunately, the damage was done. America’s credit rating was downgraded (for the first time in history).

As part of the debt-ceiling agreement, Congress decided to appoint a new committee of members, formally called the United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, to do what the current committee structure in Congress is already organized to do. To address America’s financial deficit, this new “Super Committee” was tasked with cutting a trillion-plus dollars from the federal budget. But the Super Committee failed to reach agreement. Its plan B was for an automatic trigger for a 2 percent across-the-board cut for most federal programs. To no one’s surprise, the trigger was put in place for the beginning of 2013, after the 2012 elections.

So the fiscal can is kicked down the road again, leaving little time and energy in Congress in 2012 to address other policy issues. Instead, Congress will be spending time on short-term continuing resolutions to fund the government and worrying about which programs in its districts will be impacted by the pending 2 percent cuts in 2013.

What concerns me is that Congress seems to be more detached from the everyday realities of the world where people and companies have to plan. Whether it is the matter of a $1,000 payroll tax on average for families or unemployment benefits, extending the alternative fuel tax credits or any of the many other issues that small businesses and corporations need to anticipate, the brinksmanship tactics in the ongoing political poker game in Washington aren’t really a win for anybody.

Planning in the real world and making hard choices – with our individual budgets and in business – takes more backbone than Congress seems to have.

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