Opinion: The perils of political paralysis

Americans have a lower opinion of Congress than they do of the NFL replacement refs, head lice, traffic jams, cockroaches and even the group to which yours truly belongs — Washington political pundits.

We know this because of a Public Policy Polling survey released last week. America is in real trouble when the people prefer talking heads to lawmakers.

According to Gallup, Congress’s average job approval rating last year of 15 percent was the lowest in 38 years of polling.  

The terrible judgment against the institution comes just two months after the last election and before the new Congress has taken its seats. How did the country reach this level of rage against Congress?

The answer is simple: The frustration has been building over the past two years of the Republican House majority’s failure to deal with the major challenges facing the nation from tax reform, to easy access to guns, to immigration reforms. 

The 112th Congress passed only 220 laws, the lowest number enacted by any Congress. In 1948, when President Truman called the 80th Congress a “Do-Nothing” Congress, it had passed more than 900 laws.

The heart of the problem is the endless political polarization on Capitol Hill. Republicans believed that their job was not governing but blocking any idea coming from President Obama and the Democrats, and wiping out Democrats in the 2012 election. 

At this point, with the president reelected and Democrats having picked up seats in the House and Senate, we can point to that political strategy as another failure of the 112th Congress.

This horror show reached a low-point last month when Congress came frighteningly close to not passing a new farm bill, risking a cut in subsidies and a spike in food prices. A last-minute deal had to be made to avoid panic in the milk aisle.

That petty style of politics fits a pattern: Every Congressional action these days involves threats and brinkmanship. The best-known recent example is this month’s last-minute deal on taxes and spending to avoid the “fiscal cliff” that threatened to throw the nation back into recession.

But even that deal failed to satisfy financial markets looking for long-term economic plans from Congress. The latest agreement simply kicked the can down the road by setting up another deadline for a deal in March. Unless a new deal is reached then, another set of automatic budget cuts — the sequester threat — will rock the American economy.

Another threat is around the corner in February because Congress has to raise the nation’s debt ceiling by then or once again risk a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.

That’s not all.

There is also another March deadline. Congress has to pass funding for government for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, or risk a government shutdown.

This is now the way Congress does business. It is clearly dysfunctional. But to most people it can be abstract.

The price of milk, however, is no abstraction. U.S. farm programs account for less than one half of one percent of the budget, but the peril of not passing a farm bill affects every person who eats food. 

The Democratic-controlled Senate passed a farm bill earlier in 2012. The GOP-controlled House did not. 

Just as taxes would have increased on Americans in all income brackets in 2013 without a tax deal, economists estimated that milk prices would have soared to between $7 and $8 per gallon.

Yes, agriculture subsidies are far too generous. They need to be reined in because they cater to special interests while distorting free market competition. Yes, the farm laws are an anachronistic mess. 

But last month’s political brinkmanship did not lead to reforms to make life better for both farmers and consumers.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE made just this point about the farm bill extension.  “While I am relieved that the agreement reached prevents a spike in the price of dairy and other commodities, I am disappointed Congress has been unable to pass a multi-year reauthorization of the Food, Farm and Jobs bill to give rural America the long-term certainty they need and deserve.” 

What is happening in the Capitol is not politics as usual. History and opinion polls are screaming that Congress is badly off the rails. Seven dollar per gallon milk will be the least of our problems if the power players don’t deal with these underlying problems in the 113th Congress. 

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.