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Fiscal cliff fiasco exposes dysfunction of US Congress

Published Dec 31, 2012 07:41am


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US President Barack Obama speaks following a meeting with congressional leaders in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on Dec 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. Obama met with congressional leaders for talks aimed at avoiding the “fiscal cliff”.  - AFP Photo
US President Barack Obama speaks following a meeting with congressional leaders in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on Dec 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. Obama met with congressional leaders for talks aimed at avoiding the “fiscal cliff”. - AFP Photo

WASHINGTON: Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are on the brink of letting their nation slide over the so-called fiscal cliff – leaving senators to fume that nobody does dysfunction better than the US Congress.

Americans would likely agree; the country's elected representatives have long been derided as hapless slackers, but this year with a fiscal crisis now staring at Americans like a deer in the headlights – it's different.

The 112th Congress is being seen as the least effective in decades.

On Sunday, during a rare holiday-week Senate session, they cemented that reputation, when the mood among many lawmakers inside the US Capitol reflected the wintry conditions outside: cold, dark, and somewhat unforgiving.

With 36 hours before the US economy was to suffer a half trillion dollars in tax hikes and spending cuts in 2013, Senators shuttled between the chamber and their caucus lunches, unable to agree on a path forward to avoid a crisis that has been nearly two years in the making.

Many of them said they had little knowledge of the horsetrading that was going on behind closed doors.

“I haven't heard there's a deal,” Senator Barbara Boxer accurately pointed out to AFP.

“It's a little bit like choosing the new Pope,” she said. “The smoke comes out and it's white and you know. But I haven't seen any evidence of that.”

Neither had anyone else, and with the fiscal cliff barely a day away, lawmakers were looking squeamish.

Senator Barbara Mikulski, the longest serving woman in the history of Congress, sounded nearly apoplectic, describing the gridlock as “one of the lowest points” in her 35 years as a lawmaker.

“I have lived through 9/11, when we were attacked by outside forces. I've lived through the impeachment of a president, which was so enormously difficult. But this is what we're doing to ourselves,” she winced.

President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner hardly set the worthy example Sunday, pointing the finger of blame at one another as they explained away the lack of a deal.

Lawmakers mulled over an alphabet soup of negotiating points such as the AMT, Medicare SGR, UI, and change to the apportioning of Social Security benefits known as “chained CPI.” Many offered conflicting details of what might or might not be in the parties' deal offers.

“Is this sloppy, is it frustrating, is it enough to make you want to tear your hair out if you're watching from afar? Yeah,” posed Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri. “But on the other hand, we do it better than anybody in the world,” she added.

“We don't have armed coups. We just go to the ballot box, and sometimes the results are not the kind of thing that everybody holds hands and sings Kumbaya. This is definitely not a Kumbaya moment.”

Republican Richard Lugar, a soft-spoken, 36-year veteran of the Senate who departs Jan 3 after losing a party primary challenge to a hardline conservative, spoke of the despair which comes with legislative problems “that seem to be veering out of control.”

“Really in both parties, the polarisation has increased, become more intense, and is represented in what we're seeing this afternoon,” the soft-spoken Lugar said.

Studies show polarization has gripped the electoral map. Nate Silver of The New York Times wrote recently about the gradual erosion of House districts that swing between political parties.

While there were some 103 swing districts in 1992, just 35 exist today, Silver found, while the number of districts where parties win by landslides has soared. Such changes have made compromise harder.

Senate Democrat Dick Durbin acknowledged that while “it looks awful,” US lawmakers routinely wait until their backs are against the wall before accomplishing major legislation.

“It's human nature,” he explained.

“That's the reason why we put off our trips to the dentist,” Durbin said.

“When it's something painful, we put it off to the last minute, and this is a pretty painful exercise.”


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Comments (2) Closed

Charles Jan 01, 2013 06:53am
The fundamental problem is not with Congress. The U.S. polity is very badly split and the right controls the lower house whereas the left controls the Senate. The House (the lower house) has a responsibility to adhere to its principles and, at the same time, oppose initiatives of its opposition. I am very glad they are doing so, and deeply regret Obama's winning the election for many reasons.
AHA Jan 01, 2013 02:53pm
This is really a reflection of the lack of intelligence among the vast majority of the Republican supporters. The Republican Party (GOP) is backed mainly by the very rich and the large corporations. They favor smaller governments. Governments are an impediment to their becoming more rich and powerful. The vast majority of the GOP supporters live in the mid-west heartland of the US as well as in the south eastern Bible Belt, and most of the people supporting the GOP are White. More males support GOP than the females. A large number of people in the mid west and the south east are low income earners, and a lot of them are beneficiaries of the social welfare system, and yet they