Dysfunctional, the much used adjective to describe our political class, generally taken to mean deviating from norms of behavior, is a poorly chosen adjective. The president and the Congress have shown no sign of deviating at all from some norm—this is their norm. Economists have taken to using the phrase “the new normal” to describe the condition of our economy—slow growth, zero interest rates, high unemployment. The phrase might better be applied to our politicians. Or, since dysfunctional doesn’t accurately describe what is going on in Washington, “ludicrous” or “ridiculous” might do.
We have witnessed another episode in the perils of Pauline because the speaker of the House couldn’t get his fellow Republicans to support him in an attempt to fashion a compromise with the president, who has in any event announced that he doesn’t do compromises. The leader of the minority in the Senate, a practiced hand at making a deal, at one point plaintively announced that he couldn’t find a dancing partner, the majority leader having disappeared the scene, perhaps because his ability to get his followers to follow is no greater than that of the speaker.
Bereft of a dancing partner, but not wishing to become a wallflower, the Senate minority leader was reduced to begging an old chum, the vice president, to pencil in his name on his Senate dance card. Meanwhile, the president, who made his reputation in Illinois by voting “present” on controversial issues, has been doing the equivalent on fiscal policy, which he outsourced to the Senate, preferring to spend this holiday season planning to ban the sale of weapons, millions of which are already in the hands of millions of safe and sane gun owners, and a small number of nut cases who can’t be institutionalized lest their civil rights be violated, emerging only for a press conference before an audience of admirers. At that press conference Obama announced that his long-term goal is to raise taxes on “millionaires” and “companies with a lot of lobbyists.”
Any ordinary working stiff who didn’t already feel an appropriate contempt for the politicians probably was won over to “ludicrous” and/or “ridiculous” when the Senate announced an early-morning session—starting at 11 a.m., about when working men and women, with whose incomes, retirement, and health care the politicians have been playing with, have been at work for several hours.
None of the deals proposed to save us from falling off the mythical cliff would make even a tiny dent in our on-going trillion dollar deficits, which is what this exercise was supposed to be all about. The final battle has now been postponed until February or March, when we hit the debt ceiling.
Republicans hope to get spending cuts from the president in return for agreeing to an increase in the debt ceiling, and the president plans to force Republicans to accept tax increases so that in the absence of spending cuts the ceiling will not be pierced. All of which means a continuation of the uncertainty that has become part of the new normal, which has big business sitting on its piles of cash, and small businesses wondering whether they dare take on new employees. The private sector will have to overcome substantial political headwinds to produce a meaningful growth rate in 2013.
Of course, in the end the enemy is us: We elect and reelect the vast majority of those who are presiding over this policy mess. It is as if the Jets decide to keep the current coaching staff and player roster after their woeful performance this season; as if Wizards fans find ways to express overwhelming satisfaction with the current cast of characters that represent them at the Verizon Center; as if we come to agree with many Europeans who regard Jimmy Carter as the most distinguished former president, and demand his return to political life.
Happy New Year.
Irwin M. Stelzer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, and a columnist for the Sunday Times (London).