Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Lucky 113th Congress and the New Term of the Same President

Good day to you! Much has occurred since I last imparted my wisdom to you.

It seems that the United States is in a pickle. By April 1st, President Obama and Congress must approve five Cabinet level positions, raise the debt limit up from about $14 trillion, deal with cuts to the government known as sequestration, and approve a new budget so the federal government does not shut down.

Not to mention unemployment, immigration, guns and transportation by the midterms.

These problems are exasperated by the fact that the House Republicans don’t like Obama nor his nominees. None of this is new, of course. It seems Obama could nominate House Speaker John Boehner himself and it would be criticized by the House Republicans. Fox News would find dirt on Boehner proclaiming that he was a closet liberal pretending to hate Pelosi and stopping progress in the United States.

Granted, the House doesn’t get to confirm anyone since that’s left to the Senate, which is controlled as much as possible by the Democrats. But the Senate is not known for being a well-run machine. Quite the opposite in fact.

Getting all of this done might take some hard work; something that’s hard to do when the Senate is barely in session, most of the Senators run home at the drop of a hat, and spend a lot of the time when they are in town raising money. The House has the same problems to a higher degree.

What’s the deal with Congress and gridlock?

I’ve been told by Beltway veterans that gridlock has never been this bad so analogies to past events and their solutions are difficult. Usually an election is supposed to clear out the bad blood and end gridlock.

But we just had one of those. And while there will be more Democrats in both the Senate and the House, we don’t have enough.

Filibustering, a process by which a Senator can talk for as long as he wants, has killed a lot of progressive legislation in the past. The only way to end a filibuster is to invoke cloture. Most bills that bring significant policy changes that people want are going to be filibustered by the opposition. In the Senate, a tiny opposition can grind the pace to a halt. You need 60 Senators to invoke cloture. Due to polarization, the only place to get those 60 is from your own caucus.

And no Republicans want to buck their caucus leadership. You can always try horse trading on bills and pet projects. But pet projects are anathema to deficit hawks, which have had a large amount of converts since Obama took office. Hopefully some of the reasonable Senate Republicans will vote for at least the confirmations, barring any major scandal regarding the nominees.

But the House is a different story. In the House, the Speaker has a lot of power. Opposing the will of the Speaker is difficult due to reforms instituted to give Liberal Speakers more power. And Boehner isn’t even the problem here. Rather, it’s the Tea Partiers in the caucus who won election with large majorities, even when Romney went down in flames. They see their best path to power in stonewalling the Democrats no matter what.

Ergo, we’re in a situation where only a major crisis can motivate Congress and the President to work together, much like the fun fiscal cliff fight we just witnessed. Even then they left the two tasks of raising the debt limit and dealing with sequestration to deal with. At they got the bare minimum accomplished in time to save the stock market.

This kind of fight is no great advertisement for democracy. We’ll just have to see what the new Congress and the next 100 days has in store for the next round of bloodless fighting. Stay tuned!