Congress, Conflict and Consequences

The 112th Congress, which ended its term on January 3, 2013, was labeled the "worst" and "least productive" Congress ever by a variety of sources.
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The 112th Congress, which ended its term on January 3, 2013, was labeled the "worst" and "least productive" Congress ever by a variety of sources.

The 113th Congress, which will have only four months to serve to complete its term upon returning to session in September from its current recess, appears well positioned to displace the 112th in the rankings at the race to the bottom.

This is primarily due to the performance - or lack thereof of - in the House of Representatives. With the Republicans in leadership there constrained by Tea Party conservatives, the 113th session began bad and got regressively worse.

As we observed in our book, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again, released in the fourth quarter of 2013:

"By June 2013, it started to become apparent that while there was progress being made in the Senate in terms of compromise, collaboration and cooperation, quite the opposite was the case in the House.

That's when the House unexpectedly failed to pass a farm bill. The farm bill usually sails through with bipartisan support as a matter of routine."

The House bill failed in June after sixty-two conservative Republicans voted against it because they felt the bill didn't cut spending enough.

In October 2013, the federal government was shut down for sixteen days, as conservatives in the House refused to pass a resolution appropriating funds for FY 2014 unless it included provisions to delay or defund "Obamacare."

Most recently, in the 72 hours before recessing on August 1, 2014, House Republicans passed three more bills that illustrate the intensifying influence of the Tea Party contingent: The Obama lawsuit bill. The Central American deportation bill. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals bill.

As we wrote in our last blog, "These last three votes - most especially the last two - however demonstrate clearly that the Tea Party members have become a core constituency of the House Republicans. They are holding sway and setting the agenda on certain issues such as immigration and impeachment."

The Tea Party Republican representatives are accomplishing this by refusing to compromise not with Democrats but with their fellow Republicans. Conflict is the order of the day and conquest is the goal.

This obstructionist and conflict-driven approach to legislating has consequences for Congress as an institution, our democracy, and the American economy.

In early January 2013, near the beginning of the term of the 113th Congress, Public Policy Polling released a poll revealing that survey respondents rated Congress considerably less popular than "distressing" things such as colonoscopies, root canals and being struck in traffic.

One might think that the public's assessment and opinions regarding Congress couldn't get any lower. But, since the 113th took charge, they have.

Writing for the Washington Post, Aaron Blake does a good job of summarizing polls that indicate the extreme and increasing dissatisfaction with Congress and our federal lawmakers. Polls and points which Blake highlights include the following:

  • A Gallup survey showing Congress' approval rating at an all time low of around 15%.
  • Another Gallup survey showing that only 7% of Americans have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress compared to 50% who say they have "very little." The worst ratings ever.
  • A recent Pew Research Center Poll showing that almost 70% don't want most members in Congress re-elected and 36% say that don't want their own representative re-elected. These are the highest percentages in the past two decades.

These are disturbing trends. Even more disturbing, however, is the public's attitude regarding whom Congress defines as its primary constituency.

  • A CBS/New York Times Poll in April 2013 disclosed that a mere 9% of respondents thought Congress was more interested in serving its constituents compared to 85% who thought it was more interested in serving special interests.

It's one thing for Congress and elected officials to be held in low regard. It's quite another for citizens to feel that their concerns and interests take second place to those of the special interests.

The United State is a representative democracy. When citizens lose faith in the fidelity of their representatives, it begins to call the question on democracy itself.

The answer to that question should be that citizens and their needs come first for those in Congress and addressing and correcting economic problems must be a top priority.

Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case as evidenced by a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News (WSJ/NBC) poll which shows a pessimistic American public that is not only unhappy with the economy but blames Washington politicians for the lack of improvement in it.

Key findings from the WSJ/NBC poll as reported by Patrick O'Connor of the WSJ include:

  • 76% of adults lack confidence that their children will have a better life than they did
  • 60% believe the U.S. is in a state of decline
  • 70% blame the "malaise" more on Washington leaders than on economic trends
  • 79% expressed some dissatisfaction with the American political system

It might be argued that there is no objective evidence that Congress or Washington is contributing to the country's economic woes.

That's not true. While there may not be a direct causal link there is a definite correlation to the culpability of Washington in delaying or retarding economic progress. As a case in point, consider the following from a blog we wrote in October of 2013 shortly after the government shutdown was ended:

While the shutdown was going on for more than two weeks, there were new horror stories every day about the short term costs and immediate effects such as closed national parks, veterans not allowed to visit monuments, fishermen not being able to practice their trade, and the families of deceased military personnel not receiving death benefits. The really big and telling long term story, however, came as the shutdown was winding down.

It was provided in a report, "The Cost of Crisis Driven Fiscal Policy", produced by Macroeconomic Advisers, LLC, for the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (Peterson Foundation). That report concludes that to date "crisis driven government and the resulting fiscal policy uncertainty has directly harmed the American economy by increasing the unemployment rate by 0.6% or the equivalent of 900,000 jobs." Going forward, the Report estimates that "a two week partial government shutdown would directly trim .03 percentage points from 4th quarter growth."

Since its release, the study done for the Peterson Foundation has been and continues to be widely circulated and discussed. The New York Times reported that using the Macroeconomic Advisers projections, the 4th quarter cost alone would be about "$12 billion." The Times noted, however, that "Standard and Poor's was more pessimistic, estimating that the shutdown will cost about 0.6 percent" - or about $24 billion dollars.

No matter which analysis or projections are used, the conclusion has to be that the damage that has been and will be done to the economy due to Congressional gridlock runs into tens of billions of dollars.

This conclusion is reinforced by a new report from Standard and Poor's that asserts that increasing income inequality is dampening U.S. economic growth. Although that report did not specifically quantify the exact effect of government policy on inequality, it did note, "Government policies on taxation and government transfers, such as Social Security and Medicare, have done little to reduce inequality - and may have contributed to a further widening of the gap." (We will look at the findings of that Report and the issue of income inequality in more detail in a blog to follow this one.)

In sum, the conflict in Congress proves that actions - and inaction - have consequences.

Congress can stay in conflict and have a negative impact on the psyche and behavior of the average American consumer and citizen as it has for most of the past four years. Or, Congress has the potential to get its act together and to take steps to make this a better nation and to renew the American dream.

We are optimists. That is why were heartened to see an op-ed in the Washington Post on July 31 by Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the new majority leader in the House, titled, "The House will work to restore the American Dream."

We were somewhat disheartened upon reading it, however, to discover many of the standard "talking point" criticisms of government failures and promulgation of more partisan positions than an approach to bipartisan problem solving. We were disappointed to see the conflict in the Republican Party itself referred to earlier in this blog on July 31 - the very day that Rep. McCarthy's opinion piece ran.

We must confess that dismayed us. It reduced our expectations regarding positive and productive results from the 113th Congress during the remainder of its tenure.

Still, hope springs eternal. After the 113th Congress, comes the 114th Congress. And, the Republican primaries have sent us a mixed message for that Congress.

All six GOP incumbent senators running for re-election beat their Tea Party challengers. On the other hand, the Tea Party did prevail in beating some House incumbents - most notably former majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) - and in getting some strongly conservative first time contenders for office.

Given this, the odds are that the Senate will trod a moderate path but one that is influenced by the Tea Party and the House could walk an even more conservative one in the 114th Congress. If this occurs, the 114th could be an instant replay of the 112th and 113th.

While the Congress might be able to afford this, the country cannot. In this regard let us revisit something we wrote at the beginning of the 113th Congress,

Americans believe in the God of second chances. The 113th Congress has been given that chance if it conducts the public's business with a sense of civility, equanimity and propriety, it will recapture public confidence. If this becomes déjà vu all over again, and the 113th, Congress' prestige will be driven so far underground, it may never again be resurrected.

Change "second chances" to "third chances" and the "113th" to the "114th". Our sentiment and opinion stays the same but the data shows that the consequences of the continuing conflict has become even more dire for Congress as an institution, our democracy, and the American economy.

It will be up to 114th Congress to prove that it's not three strikes and you're out and that it can succeed against all odds. If it does Congress will improve the odds for the American people and the American dream. If it does not, we will all suffer the consequences.

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