Fitzgerald analysis: Congress stuck in a cycle of temporary fixes

President Obama with Vice President Biden, who with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiated the fiscal deal.
President Obama with Vice President Biden, who with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiated the fiscal deal. (CHARLES DHARAPAK / AP)
Posted: January 04, 2013

Washington seems like a football team that calls three halfhearted running plays into the line and then punts as time runs out - in game after game.

On Tuesday, it happened again at another crucial moment: Congress passed a temporary fix to the fiscal cliff that kept tax rates from rising on 99 percent of U.S. taxpayers, but postponed tough decisions on spending cuts for two months. "The problem is, we set up three more fiscal cliffs," Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran said during late-night floor debate on the agreement.

The temporary patch has become the accepted way of doing business in the nation's capital, and some analysts say the political system seems destined to keep lurching from crisis to crisis, at least for the foreseeable future. There's just not a big market for compromise and accommodation in the House, thanks in part to a Darwinian process of gerrymandering and primary challenges that has made the Republican majority markedly more conservative.

"Their districts are echo chambers of their world view," said Daniel F. McElhatton, a Democratic political consultant in Philadelphia who formerly was chief of staff to Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.). "Most of the House Republicans, especially in the Class of 2010, have no capacity or interest in compromise."

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) got just 85 of 236 Republicans to vote for the compromise, a deal negotiated the old-fashioned bipartisan way by two old Washington hands, Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).

And Boehner did not even have the luxury of earmarks to coax votes from recalcitrant representatives, as his predecessors could - the practice of special appropriations for pet projects is now banned.

Illustrating the political danger for lawmakers, the conservative advocacy group Americans for Limited Government issued statements Wednesday threatening 2014 primary challenges to Republican congressmen who voted for the deal - including Jim Gerlach in Philadelphia's western suburbs and South Jersey's Jon Runyan.

"There really is no way out" of Washington's cycle of brinkmanship, except "an economy that is growing steadily enough to keep Congress from having to make tough decisions," said Michael Federici, political scientist at Mercyhurst University in Erie. "What are the chances that we're going to get back there any time soon?"

When the economy was booming during portions of Ronald Reagan's and Bill Clinton's presidencies, it was easier to cut taxes and keep on spending because government revenue was growing, Federici said Wednesday. "This latest recession was a game-changer."

Federici agrees that less-competitive House districts are to blame for much of the political polarization, as members fear primary challenges from the right or left in their parties. Adding to the dilemma, though, is a fear that the shock of either a large tax increase or deep spending cuts would be damaging to a fragile economic recovery, he said - thus reinforcing the ideological tendencies of Republicans to resist raising revenue, and Democrats to resist cuts to entitlements.

"This one deal is nothing compared to the deals that are going to have to be made in the future," Federici said.

Poll after poll finds that most Americans crave bipartisanship and at least the idea of compromise - though they also hate their taxes and love government benefits such as Social Security.

The demand for compromise is about to intensify for an institution ill-equipped to do it.

By March 1, Congress will have to find an alternative to the deep automatic cuts to the Pentagon and other programs that were to be triggered if lawmakers could not reach agreement on a deficit-reduction plan.

Around the same time comes the expiration of the debt ceiling, the statutory limitation on the amount the nation can borrow. Battle lines are already being drawn again - for the fight over raising the ceiling to account for money already borrowed and spent.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said his side must be willing to shut down the government. Toomey is among the conservatives who believe they need to use the leverage of their votes to force the White House and Democrats to accept deep spending cuts, including to entitlements.

"We Republicans need to be willing to tolerate a temporary partial government shutdown, which is what that could mean," Toomey said on MSNBC's Morning Joe, "and insist that we get off the road to Greece."

He said that halting some government programs would not be a good thing, "but it's a hell of a lot better than the path that we're on and the crisis we're going to have if we think that we can just keep giving this president unlimited debt."

And those weren't the only fighting words on the day after the deal. By dinnertime, Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Rob Gleason sent out a statement boasting that "if not for Republican leaders in the Senate and House, President Obama would have gotten all of the destructive tax hikes he asked for. ..."

So much for kumbayas.

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald.

Read his blog, "The Big Tent,"


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