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Dr Matthew Ashton

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The Fiscal Cliff Deal Demonstrates Everything That's Wrong With the US Congress

Posted: 02/01/2013 13:26

While the bill the House of Representatives has just passed is on balance a good thing (or at least better than the alternative of doing nothing), it also illustrates several of the main problems with American politics; especially at the national level.

There's that old saying that stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome. In this case Congress isn't good when it comes to pattern recognition. Current approval ratings for Congress are amongst the lowest ever. This is almost universally recognised as a serious issue, but perversely both parties seem to lack the political will to do anything about it. It's an almost classic example of people being rational as individuals but acting like a panicked mob when gathered together en masse.

As a result the deal that was arrived at is highly problematic. Hastily written, under-scrutinised and lacking in transparency, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the legislative process. However many in the Republican Party were forced into voting for it because at that point they had significantly more to lose than gain by rejecting it. One of Obama's chief strategies in the run up to the November elections was to paint himself as trying to fix the economy, but being blocked at every turn by a 'do nothing' Congress. The Republican representatives, and especially those backed by the Tea Party, were then trapped in the position of either upsetting the more radical grass roots or playing hard-ball and potentially pushing the economy over the edge.

The whole point of the fiscal cliff was to try to force Congress to get together to deal with the nation's problems. Instead it led to several months of uneasy stalemate which led to ever increasing levels of partisan rhetoric and the markets and credit rating agencies being unnerved. This short-sighted brinksmanship is probably more damaging to the US then the debt itself at this point. Yes the debt problem is important, and yes it should be dealt with. However many would argue that creating artificial moments of crisis like the 'fiscal cliff' during a period of intense economic uncertainty is irresponsible in the extreme.

Of course much of this is driven by Congress members' need to be re-elected every two years. This constant treadmill of fund raising and campaigning means they have to constantly be looking over the shoulder to make sure that they're not doing anything that will upset their constituents. While in some ways this could be seen as admirable, in another it's totally missing the point of their job. They're representatives, not delegates. They're there to represent their voters' best interests and the public are not always the best at either articulating or understanding the bigger picture. This can be sub-divided into citizens either not knowing what they want, wanting things they shouldn't have, lying about what they want, or saying one thing at one time and a different thing the week after.

If Congress appears divided, partisan and irrational then it is partly the fault of its electoral system and partly the fault of the voters. Until something is done about this the pattern will keep on repeating itself. The next time the debt ceiling becomes a problem, (and it's nearer than you think), expect Congress to again drag its heels until the last minute before pulling a moth-eaten rabbit out of its hat.

 

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