I sometimes wonder at the legislative strategy of this administration. That is, assuming that there is a legislative strategy.
First, go back to early 2009, when the country was caught up in a potent blend of peril and promise. The country was in dire straits – the economic system was in danger of seizing up and companies were shedding jobs like a reptile sheds its skin. At the same time, Democrats had just powered into office on the broad and history-making coattails of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, elected on a platform of post-partisanship and cool competence.
It is lost in the fog of history now, but at the time, Republicans had not dug in their heels in opposition. Opposition in fact seemed rather dangerous at the time – many of the freshman Democrat representatives had been elected in red-tinged districts, and it seemed the most productive course for many Republicans was to make some accommodation with the new president. But the president, who came into office with a large and ambitious agenda, left the legislative details of that agenda to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and what emerged was a pack of legislation that catered to the long-suppressed desires of the party’s liberal wing while at the same time giving the GOP the back of their collective hand.
OK, we thought at the time, you can play it that way – you’ve got the votes to do it without any help from the Republicans. As the new administration was fond of saying, elections have consequences. But so do actions. And two things happened when the Democrats needlessly polarized the process. First, they owned the results, lock, stock, and barrel. If the country loves the new programs, the stimulus, the health care reform, financial reform, all the rest, the Dems will be returned to office with a thumping supermajority; if not, well, then you get 2010. Secondly, when your agenda is so liberal that even Olympia Snowe is a no-show, then you have a very thin margin of victory, particularly in the Senate. Ted Kennedy’s death and then Scott Brown’s election put an end to the filibuster-proof majority, and with it much of Obama’s program. Republicans, having been dissed for the first year, were not about to become spontaneously liberal in the second.
And it was all so unnecessary. Obama could have had a much more successful – transformative, even – first period if he had exercised some adult supervision on Congress in the formation of some of his landmark legislation. As people said at the time, particularly about Obamacare, one does not make fundamental changes that affect every citizen’s life, or enact a huge new entitlement, without solid bipartisan backing. And the reason is precisely what we see now – Republicans have no ownership in it, and reject not just the fact of Obamacare but much of its premise. They will spend a good bit of the next two years undermining, unfunding, and reversing it.
Fast-forward to the present. Having spent the latter half of 2010 avoiding the necessary decisions, Congress now faces a lame-duck session lasting perhaps two weeks during which they have to pass some critical legislation that cannot be kicked further down the field.
Top of the list, of course, is extending the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. I suppose one should not expect premature concessions, but the clock is ticking and nobody has done more than hint at the obvious compromise – to extend the cuts temporarily. Whenever the subject comes up, the administration talks about how we can’t afford the $700 billion it would cost to extend them for “millionaires and billionaires.” This is deceptive on two levels – first, the $700 billion figure is the assumed 10-year cost of extending the current rates, and so is not responsive to the suggestion of a temporary extension; second, those “millionaires and billionaires” also include people whose income tops out at $250k or so. Hardly millions. Besides, these are the entrepreneurs – the “small business people” that Obama keeps saying he wants to help. You got to feel for the Prez – his class-warfare rhetoric is in conflict with his job-creation mantra.
But there is much more than income taxes at stake here. Taxes on capital are set to go up as well on January 1 – dividends as well as capital gains. Plus there is the Death Tax, which most Americans deplore even though they know they have little risk of paying it. They agree that it just is wrong to have the government tax a lifetime’s accumulation of after-tax earnings. On top of that, we have the AMT, which will rope in millions more this year if nothing is done to stop it. All of these have to be dealt with before Congress heads home for Christmas. And quite simply, if those taxes go up, the economy falters.
And let’s not forget how large a negative it is already for the economy in general – remember, the jobs, jobs, jobs, part of Congress’ and the President’s laser-like focus – when people have to face the new year without a clue what one’s tax situation will be only weeks away.
But the tax cut issue is not the only one that needs to be addressed. Perhaps even more pressing is the funding of the government itself. This Congress, with solid majorities in both Houses, has not passed a single appropriations bill this year, nor a budget. The government will shut down due to neglect if funding legislation is not passed. This is a disgraceful dereliction of duty – particularly in a time when the spending habits of our representatives in Washington were a key issue in the recent election. You would hope that our Congresspeople would have the courage and the sense of honor to actually propose appropriations and pass them on the record, but it seems not.
Now, the government will probably not actually shut down. In all likelihood, Congress’ last act before blowing town will be the passing of a continuing resolution to keep the paychecks coming at last year’s pace. This actually would be a blessing, as it would at least postpone the increases that the Democrats all want to pass but don’t have the courage or the votes to do so. But it is still a disgrace.
This alone would be enough to occupy the attention of a Congress intent on going home for Christmas holidays. But there’s more. The Obama administration has been pushing hard of late for the ratification of the New Start treaty in the Senate. Now, I am not any arms-control expert, and I have no view on the merits or shortcomings of this treaty. However, I wonder what the rush is. When serious foreign policy types like John Kyl have reservations, I would want to give him a listen. And he’s not the only one. The administration is eager to trot out former officials who favor ratification, but there are also those like James Woolsey, ex-director of the CIA, who do not. So why the hurry? This is serious stuff, so let’s give it serious consideration. The White House says that with the old treaty expired we have no ability to inspect what the Russians are doing – perhaps, but we don’t consider the Russians to be an imminent threat anyway. Let’s make sure the treaty is a good one for the US, and then we can ratify. There is something suspicious about this unseemly haste.
Harry Reid also wants to revisit his “DREAM” act, offering citizenship to the children of illegals if they serve in our military. If there is anything that can wait till the new Congress is sworn in, it is this. Others talk of revising Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, although the Joint Chiefs’ report on the effects of its implementation on our military readiness has not been delivered. Not to mention the perennial revisit of the Medicare “Doctor Fix,” without which US physicians will see a sudden 23% drop in their reimbursements. All in the crowded lame duck session.
It is no wonder that Congress is held in such low esteem that its approval rating is somewhere in the teens. Between pushing an agenda that is far more liberal than the country is, and simply punting on critical legislative needs that have a ticking time clock attached, the 111th Congress will be remembered for its hubris and its shortsighted approach to lawmaking. Had they merely made enough concessions to bring a fistful of Republicans on board, as was so possible in the early days of the Obama administration, the outcome would have been much prettier.
And where is President Obama? He has seemed from the outset to be content to let Congress fashion legislation. But it is he who owns the results.