HOLLANDER: Critical Priorities Lost In Debt Limit Debacle
Published: Thursday, October 17, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013 14:10
These past few weeks, Congress’ inability to find common ground has incurred national frustration. While this disappointment is justified, it misses the forest for the trees. It’s true that we’ve lurched from one fiscal crisis to another during the past few years. But more importantly, a lack of progress on every single domestic priority has left our country weaker at home and less respected abroad.
Fiscal crises, as this week has proven, are all eventually resolved, albeit in a typically haphazard and imperfect way. Despite the protests of President Obama, Congress has always used spending bills and the debt ceiling as leverage in negotiations. In the 1980s, House Democrats shut down the government during a tiff with President Reagan over American support for rebels in an obscure Nicaraguan civil war.
The difference with today’s House Republicans is that they have focused on defunding the Affordable Care Act. This is a goal that conservative Republicans such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) flatly acknowledge to be unachievable, which Speaker John Boehner and his somewhat chastened colleagues have discovered.
In 2010, Republicans took control of the House on the general promise to create jobs and economic growth. Instead of improving education, fixing the broken immigration system or overhauling a lengthy and confusing tax code, they have shown only one obvious enthusiasm: repealing the Affordable Care Act. That’s unfortunate, because meaningful reforms in even one of these areas would provide a long-term lift to economic growth.
Let’s start with education. College students felt the impact of congressional dysfunction this summer when student loan interest rates briefly doubled. For elementary, middle and high school students, the critical issue is No Child Left Behind, the underfunded and test-driven 2001 law for which reauthorization has been consistently delayed. Unfortunately, education reform has been hindered by political bickering, so progress on No Child Left Behind seems unlikely.
The debate over immigration reform has mostly focused on the plight of undocumented immigrants, undoubtedly a very serious moral issue. However, the broken immigration system also impairs our economy in other ways. Tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook are unable to employ talented workers who could contribute to economic growth. Although the Senate has passed legislation to bring common sense to the system, the bill is dead in the water in the House.
Finally, Democrats and Republicans have long agreed that the loophole-ridden tax code needs reform. Its nearly four million words are good for accountants and tax lawyers but bad for pretty much everyone else. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan presented a credible proposal to reduce loopholes and lower rates. However, a Tea Party allergy to new revenue has all but ended meaningful discussion on how to fix the tax structure.
Improving education, immigration and the tax code aren’t particularly radical ideas, so striking agreement on them is not impossible. Richard Nixon was able to work with Democrats to craft environmental regulation. Reagan worked with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) to patch the immigration system. Bill Clinton negotiated with Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), over welfare reform. Before getting stuck in Iraq, George W. Bush aligned with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) on No Child Left Behind.
It’s our inability to address core structural issues, not the parade of fiscal deadlines, that has weakened the United States’ stature in the world. When Obama had to opt out of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in order to deal with the squabbling children of Capitol Hill, it was no surprise that our Asian partners questioned American leadership.
The president, to be sure, shares some of the blame. He has done a poor job of explaining and defending his policies. Sometimes, he puts ideological purity ahead of a willingness to negotiate. Still, Tea Party Republicans bear the brunt of the blame. Having come to Washington to shrink government, they seem determined to create failure. To them, compromise is a sign of weakness, not strength.
Fortunately, the American people seem to be waking up. The fiscal battles of the past month have exposed the Republican Party for what it has become: an extreme faction that delights in the potential for economic ruin and halts progress to promote purity. If Americans translate their newfound frustration into votes, then sanity can be restored on the Potomac. After all, 17 more Democrats in Congress have the power to break the Tea Party fever.
Evan Hollander is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. State of Play appears every other Friday.