Ages ago, at the dawn of politics, by which I mean in late 2008, our country had just finished an election cycle of historic significance. Collectively, we knew that we needed something or other that fell under the term “change,” and that’s what we voted for. Along came the 2010 mid-term elections, and we felt confused and anxious. Somehow the meal of change we had voted for last time didn’t taste as good as we were expecting it to. We sent the plate back to the kitchen and asked the chef to prepare us a fresh plate of some other kind of change. Now, as the 112th Congress takes office, we can ask ourselves, exactly what is the chef whipping up back there?

In our hearts, I think we know that our change needs to embrace a new kind of fiscal restraint at the federal level. It’s hard to define, but deep down we know that annual trillion dollar-plus deficits, with federal debt now exceeding $14 trillion, just cannot be sustained. In fact, we voted in great numbers for those candidates who promised such things as “balancing the budget” and “reducing the federal debt.” But that was in the campaign season. As someone (Nixon, I think?) once said, one campaigns in poetry and governs in prose.

What do we know so far about the governing reality? One, we know that our elected officials chose lameduckedly not to capitalize on an opportunity to reduce future deficits — foregoing an opportunity to reduce our federal debt over the next decade by $2.7 trillion. Not that there weren’t good reasons for doing so, but the action did display the stark tradeoff between tax cuts and deficits.

Two, we know that House Republicans intend to trim $100 billion in spending from the next budget. Well, if one is a deficit hawk, I suppose you can at least say that points in the right direction. The federal government spent $6,412.7 billion in FY 2010. So the Republican idea is, apparently, to move us to the $6,312.7 billion annual spending level, an overall reduction of about 1.6%. Personally, I find it hard to discern why spending $6,412.7 trillion (and incurring a deficit of $1,555.6 trillion) is catastrophic, while spending $6,312.7 trillion (and presumably incurring a deficit of $1,455.6 trillion) — each amount being $100 billion less than FY 2010 — is good policy. Seems kind of like saying, you can eat 20 donuts a day and not gain weight… but if that 20th donut has sprinkles on top, then you’re going to rush headlong into morbid obesity.

Three, Republicans are putting a lot of stock into Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal “Roadmap.” I like his roadmap, at least in concept; like any smart politician (campaigning in poetry, as I said), he leaves the details fuzzy. But we also must understand how greatly the Roadmap departs from the campaign rhetoric. Taken at face value, the Roadmap envisions non-stop federal deficits for the next 41 years. Those deficits will decline annually until 2017/2018, and then will start to increase again, and will do so through 2037.

Let’s state the fiscal reality out loud, my friends. The Republican plan does not balance the budget. It does not reduce federal debt. It contemplates nearly endless deficits and non-stop additional federal borrowing. That’s not me saying it, that is what is in Rep. Ryan’s Roadmap. If anyone still thinks that deficits and debt accumulation are a function of recent Democratic policies, they are wildly information-averse. These deficits are structural to the core. They are the result of decades of entitlement spending growth and tax cutting.

If there is any remaining doubt that governing reality will fail to match the political rhetoric, let’s all watch today as the new House Republican leadership has the U. S. Constitution read on the floor of the chamber. There’s another bit of powerful campaign poetry: “Restore the government to its constitutional boundaries!!!” Really? Keep a list in the weeks to come of federal programs the Republicans deem unconstitutional and therefore targets for elimination. Then ask yourself, if those programs fail to pass constitutional muster, on what basis do these programs pass: Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid? Food inspections? NASA? National Parks? DEA approvals of prescription drugs? The EPA? Nursing home oversight? Financial market regulation? Are Republicans really going to propose elimination of all these federal programs? Or they are somehow constitutional, but “Obamacare” is not? Where is the line???

In other words, if the Republicans sincerely believe in strict constitutionalism, then go after them all. But if they only target a select few programs, then we will know that their actions are driven by political calculations, and not by true constitutional principles. Another plate of “change” served up to us that ends up being inedible.

Tune out the rhetoric. It is meant only to deceive and pacify you. Observe the actions, and assess the results.

Advertisements

It seems as close to certain as things get in politics that Republicans are going to wrest a majority in the House of Representatives in the upcoming election. Along the way, a lot has been made of the anti-incumbent fervor sweeping the electorate, and how that, while landing as a deluge on the Democrats, may soak Republican incumbents as well.

We have John Boehner sitting out there as the ranking Republican and Minority Leader in the House. Here is a guy who has served in Congress for 20 years through his current term, has strong ties to lobbyists, voted for hugely burgeoning budget deficits all through the 2000s, opposed the Republican’s failed illegal immigration bill in 2005, and voted for the TARP legislation.

If Republicans indeed win a majority and if business as usual prevails in Congress, he will become Speaker of the House. But my question is, should anyone expect business as usual? Will a deeply entrenched Washington insider with that voting history be acceptable to the newcomers, fueled as they are by an entirely new strain of anti-Washington sentiment? I wonder if the Republican establishment is expecting this new crop of Republican Representatives to come in and obediently fall in line with the usual seniority rules.

Maybe, just maybe, there is real change in the air. For better or for worse, perhaps, but real change.

Let me start with a clear statement of the premise of this post: the political behavior of both politicians and we the people has become downright abysmal, and it threatens our future.

Start with the politicians. We have members of Congress who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that President Obama is constitutionally qualified to be president. Literally cannot get the words to come out of their mouths. Others who cannot bring themselves to rebuke Rep. Wilson for his unambiguous violation of the House code of conduct. Still others who cannot bring themselves to rebuke Rep. Grayson for his characterization of Republican healthcare plans as, “don’t get sick” – and if you do, “die quickly.” We have Sarah Palin out there fanning the “death panels” flames. We have Rep. Franks declaring that our president is “an enemy of humanity” who has “no place in any station of government.”

Why is this? This is done because it sells tickets, i.e., it generates political support and votes. It’s good for business among the political set. Does anyone of serious mind actually doubt the president’s constitutional qualifications?  Or that that Wilson, Grayson, Palin or Frank were out of line? Have you ever heard anyone express support for these politicians’ actions who isn’t also ideologically aligned with them? You have not. Ideological blinders are an absolute prerequisite to seeing these any of these actions as justified, or intellectually honest, or in any way creditable.

And, that’s where we the people come in. We buy this stuff. We soak it up. We love it. If you are an obscure South Carolina or Florida congressman or a small state governor or whoever, this stuff works. It works politically. You get more donations. You get bigger tiny crowds at your appearances. You get more votes. In the end, you get re-elected.

Where does all of this lead us? To the state of affairs in Congress today. Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, is among the most disdained and reviled institutions in the land. Various polls show an overall approval rating of Congress in the mid twenties percent range. If you or I set out with boundless determination to ruin our reputations, it would take a miracle to earn the disgust of so many.

We are caught in an ever-worsening feedback loop. Politicians on the right disconnect further and further from reality, become more and more willing to abandon all reasonable standards of discourse — and are rewarded with money and votes from an increasingly marginalized right wing electorate. And in turn: Politicians on the left disconnect further and further from reality, become more and more willing to abandon all reasonable standards of discourse — and are rewarded with money and votes from the left wing electorate. (I omit “increasingly marginalized” for the left wing only because it is in the ascendancy now; five years ago, it would have been reversed, and it will reverse again.)

Here is why this matters. There are real issues to be confronted by our government. We live in times which require thoughtful, forward-thinking, fresh, creative and wise leadership. But we punish those who are thoughtful, forward-thinking, fresh, creative and wise. We are left with a big bunch of losers, play-acting at being “Congressmen” and “Congresswomen.” I cringe to think that this generation in Congress will be the ones to decide how to handle healthcare policy, or energy policy, or environmental policy, or economic policy, or fiscal policy, or any other important policy. Frankly, I would cringe equally whether it was Pelosi or Boehner with a 256 – 177 majority and the task of crafting the thoughtful, forward-thinking, fresh, creative and wise legislation these issues demand.

Just remember, though: it is not their fault. We voted for them. We sought out and got exactly the kind of rhetoric-filled, ideologically blinded Congress we wanted. Good luck with that, America.