The Bigger Picture
Published on February 1st 2011 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Last week the 112th session of the United States Congress began with more than 60 new Republican members and a new Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, wielding the gavel at the proceedings. What will be even more interesting to me though, is watching how animated the new Speaker’s responses are while he listens to President Obama’s nationally televised 2011 State of the Union address to Congress next week.
Will Boehner be wearing his usual sour face while the President is talking? Will we see him squirming in his seat when the President says something he disagrees with? Will he applaud the President or sit on his hands during the president’s speech? I honestly don’t know how Boehner will react, but what I do know is Boehner will be to the President’s left and behind him for the first time in his political career, a deliciously ironic metaphor and visual juxtaposition.
I could be wrong, and for the sake of my country I truly hope I am, but I really don’t expect the 112th session of Congress will accomplish anything of note. That is of course unless one considers legislative gridlock to be an accomplishment. On the other hand gridlock is precisely the outcome the demagogues of radio and TV, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are hoping for because it will give them and their Tea Party minions more to complain about.
The Republican Party and its leaders in the US House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, Eric Cantor and my own Representative, Jeb Hensarling, could conceivably use their legislative majority to address the federal budget deficit. They could start by taking a stand for free trade and eliminating the $20 billion in agricultural subsidies the federal government provides large ‘corporate’ farms each year. Fellow Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has also suggested raising the retirement age and reforming Medicare as the most prudent way to reign in America’s soaring entitlement costs, which are the largest contributors to the budget deficit.
House Republicans could also work on simplifying America’s tax code, by lowering tax rates and eliminating a heretofore ‘sacred cow’, the home mortgage interest deduction. They could also help business owners and their investors by replacing the corporate income tax with a more appropriate and easier to enforce business consumption tax. Furthermore, President Obama and a number of Democrats in Congress have already expressed a willingness to work with Republicans to implement a number of the proposed reforms I have just mentioned.
However, unfortunately for our country, Republican leaders don’t appear to share the President and Congressional Democrats willingness to negotiate on these or any other issues. A case in point is the Bush era income tax cuts which were scheduled to expire this year. Despite the fact that politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that the tax cuts for middle class tax payers should be made permanent, Republicans insisted that the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 % of Americans be made permanent too even though this increases the budget deficit.
Given Republicans; intransigence, President Obama instead agreed to a 2 year extension of all the Bush tax cuts in return for 13 months of unemployment benefits. But President Obama also questioned Republican’s commitment to reducing the budget deficit noting; “At a time when we are going to ask folks across the board to make such difficult sacrifices, I don't see how we can afford to borrow an additional $700 billion from other countries to make all the Bush tax cuts permanent, even for the wealthiest 2% of Americans.”
But Republican leader Eric Cantor’s response to President Obama reveals that the Republican perspective on compromise is a one way street saying; “I really want to see that we can come together and agree upon the notion that Washington doesn't need more revenues right now. And to sit here and say we're just going to go about halfway, or we're going to send a signal that it's going to be uncertain for job creators and investors to put capital to work, that's exactly what we don't need right now.” In other words, Cantor’s position on the tax cut compromise was that Democrats and President Obama had to agree to all of the Republicans’ demands. Hmm..That sounds like quite a compromise!
Mind you, I understand that in an ideal world political leaders wouldn’t need to negotiate or compromise with their political opponents. Indeed military dictators and the autocrats in control of single party states have the luxury of being able to do just that. But political leaders in a democracy can only get away with this if they enjoy an overwhelming majority in their nation’s legislature or parliament. Republicans are in control of the House of Representatives, but their opponents control the Senate and the Presidency, far from an overwhelming majority.
Sadly for America, the Republicans’ opposition to compromise on extending the tax cuts to include America’s wealthiest citizens is a harbinger of what their positions will most likely be on other issues of national importance like reducing the budget deficit. It also lends support to the contentions of many Democrats, independents and even some Republicans such as yours truly, that tackling America’s problems is not the top priority of Congressional Republicans or many other Republican leaders around the country.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already noted what Republican’s priority is when, in the wake of his party’s midterm election victories, he told members of the news media that Republicans' top priority going forward should be ensuring that President Obama is not reelected in 2012.
I still expect President Obama to proffer an olive branch to Congressional Republicans during the course of his State of the Union Address. But given the ‘it’s our way or no way’ attitude expressed by Republican politicians, I expect the President’s open palm to be met with a clinched fist. So say hello to political gridlock and goodbye to solutions for America’s problems for the next two years.