by Bill Becker
There was a moment when the Founding Fathers considered putting a provision in the Constitution that would allow citizens to recall members of Congress. The proposal failed. As a result, only members of Congress can remove other members of Congress from office.
It’s a pity. As the 112th Congress passes into an ignominious history and a not-much-different 113th Congress takes over, one wishes the citizenry had the right to kick members out of office not just during an election year, but any time they don’t do their jobs. Clearly, members of Congress are not doing their jobs today. By one measure, 95% of Americans think lawmakers are doing a lousy job. One suspects the other 5% are the members of Congress themselves, along with their staffs and families.
The fiscal cliff debacle is merely the latest case in which our derelict and dysfunctional Congress has put the nation’s families, businesses and the overall economy at risk. Even though Congress reached a last-minute agreement on the fiscal cliff last night, significant damage already has been done by the politics of brinkmanship. From failing to fund Superstorm Sandy relief to outright denial of climate change, Congress has proved itself particularly inept.
Consider: While Congress went home for Christmas without reaching an agreement on taxes and spending, some 12 million Americans spent the holiday jobless. Two million of them lost their unemployment compensation when the crystal ball in Times Square hit bottom at the cusp of the New Year.
The health of America’s small businesses was a significant campaign issue in 2012, but it doesn’t seem to be a concern on Capitol Hill now that the election is over. The prospect of higher taxes and deep cuts in government programs caused consumer confidence to plummet six points in December, the most important time of year for business earnings, even more important this year as the economy continues climbing out of the pit created by the recession.
Think back over the last two years. The genesis of the fiscal cliff was Congress’s standoff on raising the national debt ceiling in 2011. Legislation finally was approved only hours before the federal government defaulted on its debts. Citing this “political brinksmanship” as a sign that Congress is “less able, less effective and less predictable” in managing the nation’s fiscal affairs, Standard & Poor’s took the unprecedented step of lowering America’s credit rating.
After last November’s election, in which voters seemed to signal they wanted an end to block-headed partisanship, congressional leaders expressed optimism they’d reach a deal on taxes and spending before the end of the year. The fiscal cliff debacle indicates, however, that Congress didn’t get the message from voters or from Standard & Poor’s. And another big cliff is just ahead: The need to raise the debt ceiling again in the next few weeks. The possible consequences of another standoff have been described by Jonathan Masters of the Council on Foreign Relations: