Congressing Is Hard! Let’s Go Fundraising
You’ve probably heard already about how the
Congressional Superfriends Supercommittee failed to come up with a plan to reduce the budget deficit. In and of itself, that’s not particularly surprising. But what did surprise me is the spin I’ve heard placed on its failure from some on the right. For example, the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin:
One thing that Republicans and Democrats seem able to agree upon is that President Obama’s shocking absence from any part in the supercommittee talks nearly assured its failure…
The supercommittee is not so much a failure of the legislative branch as it is of the president’s ability to lead the country…
Republicans and Democrats in Congress should be crystal-clear: The president’s been AWOL from the most important domestic challenge we face. Frankly, I suspect that a stronger Democratic president would have been able to broker a deal. Actually, a stronger and more courageous president would have embraced Simpson-Bowles. But not Obama. Maybe we should get a president who doesn’t run overseas or finger-point but who leads.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is bullshit on wheels. The failure of the Supercommittee is a failure of Congress by definition. That’s because the very fact that the Supercommittee existed was a failure of Congress by definition.
The Supercommittee was created because our betters decided that the budget deficit has reached crisis levels. I personally don’t agree with this assessment — I would argue that right now the deficit is less worrisome than our persistent 10% unemployment rate — but for the purpose of discussion, let’s grant the premise.
The way you solve a budget crisis is by changing the structure of the budget so that spending goes down and revenue goes up. But deciding how the budget should be structured is a job that the Constitution puts squarely on the shoulders of Congress. One could even argue that it’s the most important job Congress has, since so much of the nature of a government flows from which programs get funded and which don’t.
In other words, if the budget’s broken, the branch of government that is supposed to fix it is Congress. In this case, though, they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do that job. Why? Because in this case, that job would be hard. Truly balancing the budget would require both major spending cutbacks and significant tax increases, neither of which would be politically popular. It’s fun to be a member of the Ways and Means Committee when you’re handing out tax cuts and pork-barrel spending; less so when you have to be the one to put the country on a diet.
So rather than take on that un-fun responsibility, they kicked it out to a new body — the Supercommittee. But they didn’t really believe that the members of the Supercommittee would do the job either, so they added an additional incentive: automatic spending cuts that would supposedly go into effect if the Supercommittee didn’t come up with a plan.
(Which, of course, didn’t end up motivating the Supercommittee to come up with a plan after all, because the threat posed by the automatic cuts is an entirely artificial, self-imposed threat; and the thing about making an artificial threat is that it can be un-made just as easily, and everyone knows it.)
As I said above, at the big-picture level, I believe that the failure of the Supercommittee is a good thing, because the problem it was created to solve is bogus to begin with. But regardless of whether you think it was necessary or not, the one thing that should be crystal clear is that its existence is a sign of the dysfunction of Congress as an institution. Congress is supposed to manage the nation’s finances; not just when times are good and the budget is flush, but all the time. That’s a big responsibility, and big responsibilities can sometimes be unpleasant. But that’s life, you know?
It’s not just a budget question, either. For Congress, such institutional cowardice has become routine. Congress is supposed to have the sole power to declare war, for instance, but for seventy years they have consistently ducked that responsibility. Presidents have led us to war in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan without ever bothering to ask Congress for a declaration of war, and in none of those cases has Congress protested particularly vigorously. Why? Because, like balancing the budget, declaring war is hard — it brings up all sorts of thorny, un-fun questions — and so Congress would rather not deal with it. It’s easier to do nothing, or to give the President a blank check to make the decision for them.
So it’s a bit rich to hear people like Ms. Rubin saying now that the Supercommittee was doomed to failure unless the President put his weight behind it. Managing the budget is Congress’ job. If it can’t bestir itself to actually do it — not even when it puts a gun to its own head to try and force itself to do it — that raises an obvious question:
If Congress would rather defer questions of war and peace to the President, and Congress would rather defer questions of spending and taxes to the President, then what the hell is the purpose of Congress, exactly?
That’s a question that says a lot more about Congress than it does about Barack Obama.