Congress isn’t gridlocked — it’s just totally irresponsible

Despite looming deadlines related to budget sequestration and decade-old “temporary” tax rates that expire at year’s end, massive entitlement crises and much more, Congress has effectively stopped work on serious legislation until at least some time after November’s election. 

Many observers and participants — including the entire GOP and Democratic leadership — are quick to cry gridlock and to blame inaction on some new awful hyper-partisan or ideological era.

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But there isn’t gridlock, which usually results from Democrats and Republicans sharing power and clashing over alternative positions. Gridlock slows things down — almost always a good thing — but it doesn’t stop serious legislation from happening. Welfare reform, balanced budgets, defense cuts and capital-gains tax rate cuts in the 1990s were all the product of gridlock that slowly gave way to consensus.

And today’s Congress is more than happy to pass legislation when it suits members’ interests. In just the past few months, for instance, the ostensibly gridlocked Congress reauthorized the Export-Import Bank program that gives money to foreign companies to buy U.S. goods; extended sharply reduced rates for government-subsidized student loans; re-upped the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes airline service to rural communities; and voted against ending the 1705 loan-guarantee program that gave rise to green-tech boondoggles such as Solyndra and Abound. None of these were party-line votes — all enjoyed hearty support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Another instance of budding bipartisanship is the pork-laden farm bill that extends sugar subsidies, maintains crop subsidies and creates a “shallow-loss program” that effectively guarantees incomes for farmers at a time when that sector is doing historically well. The bill passed the Senate with 16 GOP votes. Though the House version of the bill is still being worked out, no one doubts it will not only pass, but largely resemble the Senate version.

What we’re actually witnessing — and have been for years now — is not gridlock, but the abdication of responsibility by Congress and the president for performing the most basic responsibilities of government. Despite the fiscal crisis that Washington knows will occur if it fails to deal with unsustainable spending and debt, it hasn’t managed to produce a federal budget in more than three years. 

To their credit, House Republicans have drafted, voted on, and passed a budget, but they are busy now trying to worm their way out of the very spending cuts — the sequestration deal — they insisted on as a condition for raising the debt limit last summer. 

One of the most egregious failures of the president’s budget was that it, as in his previous budgets, offered no serious plan to stabilize the largest entitlement programs. Instead, the president and congressional Democrats lambasted Republicans for actually addressing the problem in their budget. 

The plain fact is that neither party is working honestly to tackle the nation’s fiscal issues. Why stick your neck out when it’s easier to just blame the other side? Given the lackluster economy, the GOP’s smartest option might well be to do nothing but blame the president for the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression. Republicans studiously avoid implicating themselves and former President George W. Bush, who pushed the Troubled Asset Relief Program through in 2008 and then diverted TARP funds to bail out General Motors and Chrysler.

Taking a page from Harry Truman’s 1948 reelection campaign, President Obama and congressional Democrats are blaming the “obstructionist” Republicans for the poor economy because they failed to enact the president’s policies.

Regardless of how the elections shake out, the parties’ punting on serious attempts at governing has set the stage for the most jam-packed and manic lame-duck session of Congress since 2010, when legislators signed off on a two-year extension of Bush’s tax rates, adopted a new START nuclear arms treaty and voted to end “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military.

Congress and the president are once again acting like errant school children who are waiting until the end of the semester to finish their work. Of course, it is ridiculous to imagine this post-election glut of legislation will produce any meaningful spending reform, coherent tax policy or a wise plan to implement the sequestration cuts. 

Simply put, this is no way to run a country. The problem is not gridlock or ideological fervor. The problem is an increasingly irresponsible government that has for far too long been far too easily let off the hook. Whichever party emerges victorious in November, and whatever happens in the lame-duck session, this much is certain: Unless taxpayers begin demanding their president and Congress act responsibly, and do the actual work they were elected to do,“gridlock” will be the least of our problems.

De Rugy is senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America.

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