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Fiscal crisis is the new normal in Washington

They don’t manage crises. They manage BY crisis.

Their last-minute deal Monday to avoid the fiscal cliff largely kicked the nation’s pressing budget problem to the next crisis, days or weeks down the road.

The bargain did not help stabilize Medicare or Social Security, or make it easier to plan highway projects, school funding or military strategy. The tortured bargaining by Washington politicians to avoid the higher taxes and drastic spending cuts due to take effect this week aimed at best at a small and temporary fix – and provided a vivid reminder why the American political system is badly broken.

President Barack Obama, despite a fresh mandate from voters, once again couldn’t get a bigger deal. The nation technically did go over the cliff Tuesday after midnight, since Congress has still not given the deal final approval. If it does Tuesday or Wednesday, Obama and Congress next face an endless string of more doomsday deadlines to avoid hitting the debt limit or simply keep the government open. More ominously, the current turmoil illustrates how nothing makes the legislative and executive branches work smoothly anymore.

While last-minute compromises are hardly new, such agreements historically came amid momentous debates on matters such as civil rights and war. The current drama involved what should be a routine task, funding and running the government.

The system of doing what for 200-odd years was normal governing is crumbling.

“When some officials turn political stances into articles of religious faith and refuse to compromise, the system becomes dysfunctional,” said presidential historian George Edwards.

Indeed, the fiscal cliff standoff underscored that no threat, financial or political, seems able to cool tensions or prod a big deal. Not the “fiscal cliff,” not last summer’s downgrading of the government’s AAA rating, not a president just elected with a popular majority, not even the time-honored device of bipartisan commissions.

The “solution” for the past four years has been a series of temporary patches, and no serious steps toward denting the government’s $16.4 trillion debt or slowing Medicare and Social Security spending, now 36 percent of federal expenditures in fiscal 2011 and growing.

The next fiscal deadline comes in about six weeks, when the nation’s debt limit needs to be raised. Then another flashpoint comes in two months when automatic spending cuts originally set to take effect Wednesday kick in, delayed but not averted in Monday’s deal. And thanks to a separate measure passed last year, federal spending is due to run out March 27.

The problem, said retiring Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is modern lawmakers often view themselves differently than their predecessors.

“The role of the Senate should be governance, not taking positions,” said Lugar, who’s leaving the Senate after losing the Republican primary to a diehard conservative who wound up losing to a Democrat.

The change has unfolded slowly, suggesting the damage to the political system won’t be repaired any time soon.

Two developments in the 1980s helped trigger today’s mayhem: Televised congressional proceedings and Republican backlash against the ironclad Democratic House rule from 1955 to 1994.

Newt Gingrich and his allies determined that their only path to power was to rally the party’s conservative base and use the power of television to get attention. Night after night, after the House had finished its formal business, they’d make televised speeches outlining their views and galvanizing a new constituency outside the Washington establishment.

What that told politicians, said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., is that offering simple solutions to complex problems was a winning strategy.

“Try to explain to people what a sequester is. It’s just about impossible,” he said. “But tell them government is too big and needs to be made smaller and they like you.”

Democrats noticed. They rallied their own troops – generally, liberal activists – and regained control in 2006.

By then, politics had new rules: Each party had to play to its base to keep up not only support, but fundraising.

Monday afternoon, for example, one liberal group jumped in urging Democrats in Congress to reject the fiscal deal because it would allow incomes between $250,000 and $400,000 to escape tax increases. “Tax rates on those making $250,000 must go up,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said in an e-mail to congressional Democrats. “The public is paying attention. . . . The current deal violates progressive principles. It should be opposed.”

While Democrats and Republicans talk about tackling other issues in coming months, the fact is that fiscal matters will continue to stymie them.

Hope for bigger things rests with Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. But neither has shown the kind of political toughness that would muscle a big deal through Congress.

Obama once again was unable to get a big, bipartisan deal, and again showed himself out of touch with Congress’ rank and file. His Monday afternoon appearance before TV cameras, essentially a political rally with cheering supporters, proved an affront to the Republicans he badly needs.

“The next time we talk about fiscal problems in America, I want a news conference where the president is center stage, not surrounded by political activists,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Boehner tried to get tough with hard-line Republicans, throwing some off key committees and hoping to send a signal that dissenters would be punished. It hasn’t worked.

In the meantime, lawmakers and leaders appear motivated to do little but await the next deadline and figure out how to act “in stages,” as Obama said Monday.

That’s not a good sign. ”I worry,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, “that we are losing the art of legislating.”

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