by Steve Huntley
February 15, 2023
Americans are used to not expecting much from the politicians in Congress.
And those politicians rarely fail to measure down to those low expectations. More investigations and political infighting may be all that we should anticipate from the new Congress. Control of the legislative branch is divided and the majorities in both chambers are razor thin.
Already underway is a battle — more politics than substance — over raising the nation’s debt limit.
Republicans dream of an actual reckoning with the nation’s surging red ink. Democrats dream of Republicans being shown up as willing to push the nation’s financial credibility off the cliff. Voters are left to dream of a Congress that might actually strive to clean up the nation’s debt mess.
To win his post as House speaker, Kevin McCarthy had to make a pledge to the activist Freedom Caucus not to raise the debt ceiling without spending cuts. The White House responded by declaring there will be no negotiations over raising the debt limit.
It will take some very adroit maneuvering by House Republicans not to paint themselves in a corner of being responsible for shutting down the government, a public relations disaster every time it’s occurred in the past.
Just last week President Biden went on the attack in his State of the Union message. He seized on the ham-fisted language of a GOP senator calling for regular reviews of federal programs to dust off the hoary Democrat accusation that Republicans want to cut Social Security.
The debt ceiling was reached Jan. 19 and the Biden administration said that, without congressional action, the government might not be able to pay its bills as early as June.
Consider these facts about the nation’s debt, as reported by the New York Times:
*The debt of $31.5 trillion is six times what it was at the start of this century just 23 years ago.
*Taking into account the size of our economy, the debt is the largest it has been since World War II when the country’s entire financial resources and credit were mobilized to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in the greatest war in world history.
*Projections show the national debt growing by an average of $1.3 trillion a year for the next decade.
And, oh, about Social Security, the Congressional Budget Office said in December that Social Security’s financial situation is so anemic that as soon as 2033 the government “will no longer be able to pay full benefits.” Biden’s fear-mongering demagoguery did not mention that.
So getting America’s finances under control is vital. And polling shows a majority of voters think Congress should address it. Yet, when push comes to shove, voters usually rank as a higher priority sexier, more immediate, more emotional concerns, be it inflation, gas prices, abortion or the Ukraine war, to name a few.
Success in balancing the government’s ledgers may require control of both houses of Congress and possibly the presidency as well, unless somehow leaders of both parties come to think it’s important enough to work together and make the hard choices compromise requires.
We can dream, can’t we?
Both sides are responsible for the red ink. When they are in power, Democrats spend like they’ve just won the Power Ball lottery, target “the rich” for tax increases and employ fanciful budget numbers to justify their excesses. When Republicans are in power, they cut taxes, propose often illusionary spending cuts and employ their own fanciful accounting numbers.
To their credit, the rebels forcing the 15-vote speaker election demanded changes in how Congress writes with the nation’s budget.
In recent years, budgeting has come in so-called omnibus bills that cover the entire federal government instead of the once traditional way of producing a dozen separate spending bills for the various functions and departments in charge of governing the country. Making it worse is that these omnibus bills run more than a thousand pages and land on lawmakers desks only hours before the deadline for passing them.
This means, in former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s infamous words about Obamacare, members of Congress have to “pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”
This is lawmakers operating in the dark.
This is no way to run a government.
So, it would be a giant step forward for House Republicans to restore the normal order of business with committees writing twelve individual budget bills, holding hearings where necessary, turning out bills with reasonable time for members to read them before voting, and guaranteeing a sensible amendment process.
That would be true even if the Democrat-ruled Senate dragged its feet and resorted to combining House budget measures into one last-minute omnibus bill. At least the voters would know which party favors transparency in the workings of Washington.
Which brings up the question of whether even more basic reform is required to change the way Congress works.
The rebels, as a cost for their support of McCarthy’s speakership, also demanded a vote on term limits for members of Congress. That balloting would be symbolic, but it touches on a real issue.
Polls show that the concept of terms limits is popular with voters and, perhaps for that reason, any number of politicians pay lip service to the notion — but nothing ever comes of it.
An organization called U.S. Term Limits has a goal of getting 2 million Americans to sign a petition pushing for this change.
That would be only a start. Success regarding term limits requires a multi-year effort costing tens of millions of dollars and powered by a nonstop media campaign to drum up pressure for change. This will be an uphill battle since limiting politicians’ time in Congress will require a constitutional amendment.
You will hear a number of arguments against term limits.
For one, limits would deny the voters the right to keep a representative or senator they like beyond a certain time. Good government is set back when effective lawmakers are forced out of office, according to a variant of this argument.
Another is that legislators build up important experience in policy and the workings of government that is wasted if they’re forced out of office by arbitrary term limits.
Also, a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center found a natural turnover rate of about two-thirds of Congress over a 12-year period. Twelve years — two terms for the Senate and six for the House — constitute the ceiling usually suggested by term limit advocates.
Such arguments have merit. But most Americans probably think those arguments are overwhelmed by the ineffectual and self-serving mess that they see in Congress.
The most obvious result of experience in the House or Senate is not only policy expertise but also lawmakers building up the clout and financial resources necessary for winning re-election after re-election.
Re-election rates for members of the House and Senate in the 21st century run 80 to 90 percent, according to an analysis by Open Secrets. Voters in effect frequently have little say in choosing their lawmakers because the built-in advantage of incumbents usually translates into weak challengers.
The Pew argument fails to take note of the power longevity bestows on a few legislators like former House Speaker Pelosi (36 years), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (24 years), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (38 years), Senate Democratic whip Dick Durbin (27 years) and House assistant Democratic leader James Clyburn (30 years). New House Speaker McCarthy almost seems like a newcomer at only 16 years.
Power accumulated by a few legislative leaders as the years pile up explains why they can force thousand-page bills through Congress while most of the rest of lawmakers are left to twiddle their thumbs.
The result too often is a dysfunctional Congress that has abdicated its lawmaking responsibilities to other parts of government.
Presidents increasingly resort to executive orders to legislate from the White House — and, in the case of Democrats, they often are encouraged to do so by Capitol Hill leaders unable to advance their goals through legislation. Think of Biden’s executive orders on vaccine mandates, an eviction moratorium and relief for student loan debt.
The unelected functionaries running the vast federal bureaucracy seize the legislative vacuum to promulgate ever more expansive and intrusive regulations going far beyond what congressionally enacted laws allow. Since bureaucrats overwhelmingly lean left, Democrats are happy to defer to them.
At least a president is elected. Lawmaking by unelected bureaucrats is an insult and an actual threat to our democratic republic.
But courts, including the Supreme Court, are pulling back from earlier deference to the administrative state. Last year the high court ruled against the Environmental Protection Agency for trying to impose a cap-and-trade emissions control regime that Congress itself had refused to enact.
More challenges are in the legal pipeline, and more decisions like the EPA one would force a return of law-making responsibility to Capitol Hill.
That would mean the country will need an effective Congress living up to the demands imposed on it by the Constitution — “All legislative powers herein granted (emphasis added) shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.”
Perhaps it’s worthwhile to recall the famous words of Benjamin Franklin who, when asked what kind of government the Founding Fathers had given us, replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Steve Huntley, a retired Chicago journalist now living in Austin, Texas, has contributed other pieces to johnkassnews, from an examination of the secret jail for Christopher Columnbus and other politically problematic public art to an essay on Americans suffering from Joe Biden gas pain.
For almost three decades Huntley spent most of his career in Chicago journalism at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was a feature writer, metro reporter, night city editor, metropolitan editor, editorial page editor and a columnist for the opinion pages.
Before that he was a reporter and editor with United Press International (UPI) in the South and Chicago, and Chicago bureau chief and a senior editor in Washington with U.S. News & World Report. Northwestern University Press has issued soft cover and eBook editions of Knocking Down Barriers: My Fight for Black America by Truman K. Gibson Jr. with Steve Huntley, a memoir of a Chicagoan who was a member of President Roosevelt’s World War II Black Cabinet working to desegregate the military.
It is an honor and privilege to have Mr. Huntley, who spent decades in the news business in Chicago, writing pieces here.