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Against Integrity: Why A More Corrupt Congress Could’ve Fixed The Fiscal Cliff

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

[Updated] WILLIAMSBURG, VIRGINIA: Happy New Year, America. To start 2013 off wrong, we have a deal to fix the “fiscal cliff” that actually only solves a third of it.

This is where four decades of Congressional reform have gotten us. The corrupt old boys’ club of the past would have done better.

Where exactly do we stand as of noon on New Year’s Day? Let’s assume the House approves the bill that passed the Senate overnight 89 to 8 – though after Republicans rejected their own leadership’s “Plan B” last month, I hesitate to take their votes for granted on anything – and that President Obama signs it, as all signs say he will. [Updated: The House passed the deal at 10:45 pm Tuesday night, 257 to 167, though only 85 Republicans voted “aye”]. Then we will have a resolution on the highest-profile piece of the fiscal cliff trifecta, the Bush-era tax cuts that expired on New Year’s Eve.

But we’ll still have nothing on the federal debt ceiling, the maximum amount that Uncle Sam can borrow, which we would have hit already if the Treasury weren’t playing games with the accounts, and which was the issue that brought the nation near default in 2011. Similarly, the unholy spawn of the 2011 debt-limit compromise, the automatic across-the-board spending cuts called sequestration, will only be postponed two months — forcing a new battle just as the continuing resolution, which funds federal agencies in the absence of a proper spending bill, also expires.

Admittedly, tax law affects almost every American directly, in a way that federal borrowing and spending do not, so the one-third of the fiscal cliff that Congress seems to have fixed is arguably the most important part. Letting taxes go up on everyone could have thrown the country right back into recession.

Ironically, however, the extra revenue would have also made solving sequestration and the debt limit a lot easier. Now, if Republicans and Democrats play chicken over the debt limit again, as they did in 2011, the country could at worst default and at least see its credit rating downgraded further. If they can’t compromise on sequestration – and the two are likely to be linked – then a brainless automatic mechanism will cut $50-60 billion, depending on the estimate, from the Defense Department and an equal sum from non-defense accounts.

Whether the federal budget is too big is an important debate to have, but the sequester addresses it, quite literally and indeed intentionally, in the stupidest way possible, by cutting the same amount out of almost every federal program from health inspectors to stealth fighters. (Entitlements, the biggest driver of the debt, are ironically exempt).

Our friends at the Aerospace Industries Association, whose (occasionally overblown) campaign to stop the cuts we’ve covered all year, called the sequester mechanism a “mindless meat-axe” in their unavailing 11th-hour appeal to Congress to address the problem. This kind of blind salami-slicing is, as the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has repeatedly said, is the opposite of policy.

So as I sit here in Colonial Williamsburg, a high-class tourist trap/monument to America’s centuries of democracy, after annoying my wife by keeping one eye on my iPhone reading news instead of on the kids, I can’t help but think this disaster is the result of too much democracy.

Wait, wait, don’t lynch me, let me explain.

Starting with the Legislative Reform Act of 1970 to require a public record of all votes to amend bills in the House, continuing through the trumped-up “scandal” of House Bank overdrafts in 1991, and culminating in the almost-total abolition of earmarks in 2012, generations of high-minded public servants have labored to make the Congress more transparent, more accountable, and more democratic (with a lower-case “d”). Young idealists rebelled against the party elders, men like the Southern Democrats who had stood in the way of civil rights, or for that matter like the great bully Lyndon Johnson, who got the Civil Rights Act passed. The power of committee chairmen to trade favors and make back-room deals declined. And, at the same time, Congress kept getting more partisan, more ideological, and more dysfunctional.

This is not a coincidence, people.

The modern myth of the ideal legislator is Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a naïve but honorable outsider who fights corruption and brings the Senate to a halt by filibustering against all odds. It’s a great story. But guess what happens when every member of the legislature is trying to play Mr. Smith? Why, the same thing that happens when every cop in the precinct is a loose cannon who plays by his own rules, or every pilot in the squadron is a hot-shot maverick: Nothing gets done.

Uncompromising idealism makes for great theater – the kind that wins you votes in a primary election – but it doesn’t get bills passed.

So I’d propose a new model for the 21st century, inspired not by Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr. Smith but by Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln. Spielberg’s counterintuitive but inspired choice of topic is not any of the familiar dramas of the Civil War but the legislative battle over the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. The film starts with soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address and ends with a snippet of Lincoln’s immortal second inaugural address (“with malice towards none…”). In between, however, it’s full of political arm-twisting, sleight of hand with parliamentary procedure, impeachable misrepresentations by the President to the House of Representatives, and outright buying of votes.

It’s how Congress used to operate, back in the good old, bad old days – and it worked.

Note: After an anxious email from my editor (currently in Australia), I should state for the record that this article represents my personal and rather jaundiced opinion rather than any official stance of Breaking Defense. I also managed to get the date of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington wrong until an alert reader pointed out my mistake, which was just dumb of me.

What do you think?