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The 800 Pound Gorilla in the Room

With Congress, every time they make a joke it’s a law, and every time they make a law it’s a joke.”

– Will Rogers

Here we go again through the quadrennial exercise of electing a President. Every four years, we voters have to endure a mix of ad homonyms, magical thinking, mendacity, hyperbole, hypocrisy, and noise; lots and lots of noise. One would think, listening to and following the campaigns, that the electee will be able to act as both the legislative and judicial branches of government.

But the President, whoever he is or will be, has relatively limited powers, constitutionally speaking. Of course all Presidents tend to go rouge (call it ex-constitution) from time to time. These mostly made-up, ad hoc powers can range from making the Louisiana Purchase, to suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War, to interring Americans with Japanese descent, to authorizing torture, to sending missile-laden drones to kill Americans without due process.

But with all the hoopla over the Presidential election, the 800 pound gorilla in the room these days is Congress. The President can’t make laws (not officially anyway) and, through the Electoral College, is only tangentially elected to office by the people. However, in setting up our ternary government, it is clear that the Founders intended Congress, specifically the House of Representatives, to do the heavy lifting and be directly accountable to the people. That’s why the Constitution establishes Congress in Article 1, granting it specifically enumerated powers; leaving the (very limited) duties of the President for Article 2, and putting the Judiciary a distant third in Article 3. We look to the President for leadership and the courts for guidance on the law, but it’s really Congress that has all the power.

To me, and many others I suppose, Congress these days is conspicuously disengaged; content, apparently, to let the country run on auto-pilot, while the members spend most of their time working toward the next election and negotiating a quid pro quo or two with contributors. And the political parties expend most of their energy blaming each other for all of our woes. Unfortunately, the blame game carries on even after they are elected. Instead of acting like grownups and working diligently to help solve the nation’s problems, it seems they would rather push for more polarization and animus.

In a recent Gallop poll, Congress had a 10% approval rating; the lowest in 35 years. But in 2002, Congress enjoyed a whopping 54% approval. There is good reason, in my opinion, for this fall from grace.

To start with, consider that by the end of 2012, members of the House of Representatives will have met for 109 days, while the rest of American workers will have put in 258 days. In 2011, the House was in session for 123 days, about half the number of regular work days that year. Although they do work on the days they are not in session, it is unclear how much of that is spent tending to the people’s business and how much goes into raising money for the next election.

Among the important work Congress needs to do every year is to pass a budget. The last time Congress passed a budget from the President was in April 2009; the federal government has used Continuing Resolutions to fund operations since then. The traditional budget process has essentially ended due to the bickering between the parties. This has created a cloud of uncertainty that makes planning in both the public and private sectors difficult, if not impossible. And it is decidedly unhelpful to reducing the existential angst that attends a broken economy.

There are many examples just in the last few years of the Congress failing to serve the public interest. You can probably list them yourself. Remember the debt ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011? Among other things that inane exercise prompted Standard and Poor’s to drop the nation’s credit rating; a first in the 225 year history of the country.

Then there are all the machinations over the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., Obamacare) with a reported 33 votes in the House to repeal it (at an estimated cost of $50 million to taxpayers), even while knowing that such a bill would never make it past the Senate, much less the President’s veto. This is how political polarization becomes the enemy of democracy.

In terms of work product, consider that in the 2011-2012 session (through July) Congress passed 147 bills, of which 29 of them, almost 20%, were for the naming of Post Offices. And most of the rest were maintenance items and otherwise innocuous bills.

Our standing in the world is falling as well. In the “Index of Economic Freedom” produced by the conservative Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. ranked 10th in 2012, down from 3rd place in 2002. (If you’re interested, Hong Kong, now a part of communist China, ranked first.)

Currently, the U.S. ranks first in the world in per capita health expenditures, but we are laggards in some common measures of health outcomes. According to a recent Reuters report, “Americans spend twice as much as residents of other developed countries on healthcare, but get lower quality, less efficiency and have the least equitable system, according to a report released by the Commonwealth Fund. The United States ranked last when compared to six other countries — Britain, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.”

And the advances we have made in technology, which has given us a highly competitive edge in world markets, may be more difficult in the future. Consider that the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks the U.S. fourth out of 34 countries in money spent per student on secondary education, but we are 14th for reading skills, 17th for science, and 25th for mathematics.

We are now 167th in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth, 46th in civil liberties, 22nd in freedom from corruption, 37th in upholding the law, and 17th in democracy. But we are first in incarceration rate per 100,000 residents and in energy consumption per capita.

Given those issues, it’s no wonder we’re only 11th in the world on the Happiness Index (based on another Gallop poll.). This, in spite of the fact that we invented the smiley face and the happy meal.

I don’t know whether the disturbing trends in our economic, political, and social health are reversible or not. But while the focal point for our progress as a nation is usually placed on the President — past, present, and potentially future — our Constitutional Republic puts that responsibility squarely on the elected representatives of the people. Let’s see them take on the American spirit and prove themselves worthy of representing all of us, working for the people’s interests rather than their own.

It seems that our Congressmen and women are, much like the voters themselves; deluded into maintaining the status quo, proceeding under the illusion that things are business as usual. No fiddlers on the roof in this crowd; no courage to break with tradition.

And on it goes. The Congress’s performance in the face of the many draconian problems facing the nation is appalling and inexcusable. We all know about the high unemployment rates, the trillion-dollar deficits going out as far as the eye can see, the staggering amount of federal debt, the undecipherable income tax laws, the erosion of the middle class, the decline in household net worth and real wages for the vast majority of Americans, a crumbling infrastructure, and much more. Yet Congress remains intransigent; focused on the next election, concerned more about whether their party will prevail, and seemingly oblivious to the fact that the country is hanging off a cliff by its well-bitten fingernails.

Thomas Paine, the pamphleteer and social critic during the Revolutionary War and beyond, who is often overlooked as one of our most important Founding Fathers, wrote, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

Something to think about as we slouch toward November 6th.

Revised and expanded Op-Ed originally published in the Joplin Globe on August 26, 2012.

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2 thoughts on “The 800 Pound Gorilla in the Room

  1. Isn’t it fair to say also that the congress is passing bills that more and more hand off so many details to the civil service to work out that maybe the legislation itself should have resolved: if as you observe the congressmen are politicians first of all, and only legislators to the extent they have time after politics and money raising.

    Posted by brucetheeconomist | November 13, 2012, 7:53 am
  2. Herb, your list items in which America ranks poorly in relation to the rest of the world should make compelling reading for all those people who continue to state “American is the best country in the world!” When I hear that, read that, I always want to ask, in what way? Sure, The USA is a great country in many ways, but to say American is the best country in the world certainly overlooks many important issues. Interesting thoughts here.

    Posted by helenofmarlowe | October 16, 2012, 10:43 pm

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