"The deal approved today is truly a missed opportunity to do something big to reduce our long-term fiscal problems..."
- from a statement released Tuesday, by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of a bipartisan deficit reduction committee
If you don't stand broadly and shoulder the responsibilities of governing, there should be no surprise when the house of cards you've tried to build over the last two years comes crashing down around you. That's what happened over New Year's Day, when the Senate, and then the House, passed an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill that mitigated the effects of the final sunset (thank God) of the Bush tax cuts.
As a solution to the so called "fiscal cliff," the Senate version of a revamped House bill falls short of averting every slippery rock on the way to the economic edge, but it was the only lifeline of agreement left after Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), turned down the president's offer of early December, refusing to take the same tack with his caucus that he essentially was forced to take Tuesday night. Since he dropped the ball the White House handed him, Boehner had to make do with the cold, meatless bone of a compromise worked out between Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Vice President Joe Biden. Abandoning the standing "majority of the majority" principle that has been a guidepost for Republicans for the last dozen years, Boehner allowed his caucus to vote against itself by nearly two-to-one.
With the flack that he has taken for that vote, don't expect him to walk a similar line in two months, when the just delayed automatic cuts to defense and entitlements set up in 2011, known as the "sequester," are now due to kick in. The conservative GOP is already salivating at the cuts they can make while risking the country's credit rating, when the debt ceiling needs to be raised again, around the same time as the sequester is triggered. "We Republicans need to be willing to tolerate a temporary, partial government shutdown," said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), telling MSNBC's Morning Joe that the delayed sequester and debt ceiling provided an "opportunity" for the Grand Old Party.
"That’s a debate the American people want," McConnell said in a statement about the pending spending cut negotiations, ignoring the results of an election with net gains by Democrats, that had more to say about what the "American people" really want. "It’s the debate we’ll have next. And it’s a debate Republicans are ready for." Well, good for them.
The spending curbs that dissenting Republicans complained about being absent from the New Year's Day vote would have been part of the larger deal, if Boehner would have had the guts to bring Obama's proposal forward, instead of his ill fated, ill advised, Plan B. It is possible that he brought Plan B out, just to demonstrate to the White House, and the country, how little control he actually has of his fellow Republicans.
Some in his caucus seemed to regret their fight against Boehner's push for a one million dollar tax threshold, that was contained in the earlier legislation. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) reportedly told fellow Republicans, Tuesday, that “we harmed ourselves by undercutting our leader on Plan B,” according to a Politico unnamed source.
The only reason the Speaker went ahead with Tuesday's vote was that he knew that the legislative body he supposedly runs, and perhaps, more importantly, his party, would have borne the brunt of the outrage from the American public, had the fall from the cliff landed on the backs of the middle class.
There has been, and will be, a lot of rhetoric on this, between now and the end of 2013, but the most consistently precise description of the way our government's legislative process works, or doesn't, came from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) during Tuesday's House debate on the Senate bill. "This agreement," he said, "represents absolutely the least we could have done under these circumstances and tragically institutionalizes for the next Congress the madness of short-term frenzy around artificial deadlines that drives the American public crazy."
As the nation welcomes the 113th Congress to the Capitol, does it make us crazy for believing that maybe they can stop the insanity, where legislators care enough to do the least, when the most is at stake? After the failure of John Boehner to get his Plan B to a vote, last week, he famously got up and recited the Serenity Prayer, girding himself to accept the things he cannot change. I wonder if the Speaker will give a copy of that affirmation to the freshmen representatives. Maybe that's the only way to get through a term, and keep one's mind intact while abdicating responsibility, trust and integrity.
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference."