Will Congress ever learn its lesson?

The statue of Grief and History stands in front of the US Capitol Dome in Washington on 16 October 2013 The statue of Grief and History stands in front of the US Capitol Dome in Washington on 16 October 2013

After the horrific mass murder at Newtown, Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, there was a tremendous amount of conversation that this had to be the moment of change in how America coped with gun violence.

Finally the politicians and the citizenry would take on the gun lobby and there would be gun control legislation, well-funded enforcement and new attitudes.

That change, we now know, never came.

Having covered American politics, government and culture for well over 30 years, I was the jaded sceptic in this mostly British newsroom who predicted the Newtown moment would fade away.

Similarly, today there is a tremendous amount of conversation about how this latest national embarrassment over debt ceilings and budget deadlines will finally force Congress to grow up and govern with some modicum of orderliness and common sense.

Zero-sum games

Again, the sceptic says don't hold your breath. Actually, I am more sceptical than that.

McConnell: "This has been a long, challenging few weeks"

And I am impressed by the thoughts on this possible turning point from two other sceptics, Robert Samuelson and Lawrence Summers.

Samuelson is one of our best and most senior economic columnists. He does see the current piece of governmental auto-vandalism as a turning point - the bad kind.

"When the history is written, I suspect the brutal budget battle transfixing the nation will be seen as much more than a spectacular partisan showdown," Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post earlier this week.

"Careful historians will, I think, cast it as a symbolic turning point for post-World War II institutions - mainly the welfare state and the consumer credit complex - that depended on strong economic growth that has now, sadly, gone missing."

In the absence of economic growth, Samuelson argues, political decisions are always zero-sum games and are always harder.

He doubts our political institutions are strong enough and well-managed enough to cope with the end of growth, much less revive growth.


Start Quote

Future historians may well see today's crisis as the turning point at which American democracy was shown to be dysfunctional”

End Quote Lawrence Summers Former US Treasury Secretary

I would add that the major institutions in the corporate and finance worlds are equally weak and short-sighted.

On the same op-ed page, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers also argued that this debt and budget battle is a turning point - also the bad kind.

Summers says "future historians may well see today's crisis as the turning point at which American democracy was shown to be dysfunctional - an example to be avoided rather than emulated."

Neither Summers nor Samuelson believe this turning point is a wakeup call. Just a bad omen.

Others are more hopeful.

So as the post-mortem examinations on "Boehner's Bungle" come in, expect to hear talk about how the pendulum always swings back to the middle in American politics; about how Tea Party flamethrowers in the GOP will be ousted by sober country club, Eisenhower Republicans; about how Democrats reach out to temper some of the partisanship that has given this Congress the lowest approval ratings in history, if only to save their souls.

Don't hold your breath.

American political institutions functioned quite well from the Depression until the 1970s.

But since then relentless waves of partisanship, special interest money, media trivialisation and declining trust have eroded the foundations of those institutions.

Institutions beyond politics, such as Wall Street, corporate America and the press, have been no less affected.

If Samuelson is correct that economic growth at post-war levels will never reappear, the system will be further stressed.

A furloughed federal worker protested outside the US Capitol on 4 October  A furloughed federal worker protested outside the US Capitol during the 16-day government shutdown

What would have to happen for this to be a political turning point - the good kind?

What would have to happen to attract our most talented people back into politics and then create a fresh capacity in government to make difficult but orderly long-term decisions?

Now we're in fantasyland.

But as long as we're here, I'll mention two scenarios.

My pet fantasy, perhaps because I work for a British organisation, is that a small third party could gain enough votes in Congress and potential sway in presidential elections to force a new type of coalition building, more akin to a parliamentary system or pre-Civil War America.

Such a party would probably be moderate in today's nomenclature, Bloombergian in some ways.

The other scenario is that somehow parties regain power and discipline over their membership and over the special interests that finance their operations.

This would entail reform of the primary system and campaign finance reform. It would entail incumbent politicians going against their short-term career interests.

Fantasyland, like I said.

And sadly, just as with Newtown, this is no turning point of the good kind.


More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    This goes beyond the Tea Party. Both sides are bought by outside interests and until the corporate money is out of politics, the USA is doomed to collapse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    18. But Congress has yet to pass a budget. How is it Obama's fault that no budget has been presented to him to sign?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Congress is the representative of the people. It is intended that Congress decides what the people have to pay for. The president is supposed to sign into law the budget and other laws unless there is a major reason to not do so. He apparently thinks he's an elected king; is faultless and all should do as he wishes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    s "unfit to own media." His minions have single-handedly turned news into 24 hrs of the daily Heritage "talking points." So, the left needed MSNBC. Fights; no vision, thought or pictures of hope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Gloom and doom. It takes vision to create. A direction to grow. And our people are dumbed down by Fox, for starters -- I wish British Parliament would tell our Congress and public you condemned Murdoch as "unfit to own media." His minions have single-handedly turned news into 24 hrs of the daily Heritage "talking points." So, the left needed MSNBC. Fights; no vision, thought or pictures of hope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Will foreigners never learn that the US is not a centralized elected dictatorship like so many others? The Federal govt. does not matter as much as the govt. in London or Paris or Berlin or Tokyo, the President is not a monarch or even a Prime Minister, and the day to day lives of Americans go pretty well without bothering about the Feds, except for complaining about the IRS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Politicians don't have the time or the interest in actually governing. Each one spends every day of their term raising money, reading polling data, and getting their face on TV, all so they can win another term and repeat the process. Governing is left to staff members and lobbyists, who spoon feed politicians the lines to speak and the bills to vote on. Only those not running again even try.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It's not the political system that is the problem. In fact, up until recently it has served us quite well. After all we started out as colony in 1776 and now we are the largest economy in the world and, although fading a bit, the last remaining superpower. The problem is not the system, it's the extremist idiots we have elected recently, both Republicans and Democrats.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Big issues such as gun control, deficits & illegal immigration have been around in the US for decades. Gun control goes all the way back to killing of JFK. Nothing ever changes and nothing is going to change in the future. This is because of the deficiencies in the U.S. government structure that results in problems never being solved but moved around and put off from one election to the next.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Sadly, I don't see American politics heading towards the middle, nor do I see a third, more moderate party coming to the fore as likely either.

    In the age of the internet, is is too easy to quickly find others who share the same view as you allowing you to harden and consolidate your views. Over time this will simply drift to extreme partisanship at either end of the spectrum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    What on earth does" Bloombergian" mean?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    This whole cluster is about racism as anything else...and I'm sorry but the blame lies solely on one party. The republicans have vowed publicly that they would do anything in their power to make Obama fail , and not pass a single thing with his name on it. They would not even have the majority vote in the house if not for gerrymandering the districts as dems had a million more votes, lynch mob!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The United States government does not have a debt problem. It has a tax problem, which can be resolved by tax reform. Chapter 8, The Battle of the Budget, The Price of Inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    A couple of the problems with the USA government system are:-
    1) The executive branch (I.e. the USA cabinet) except the President are not elected,
    2) Battles between the Senate, President, and the House of Representative as to who should control policy.
    3) For some in the congress the "Founding Fathers" and their reputed opinions are treated as an almost religious certainty. They had slavery.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The state of politics here in the US is ridiculous. I don't know of anyone who believes it is going to get better. When the best Congress can do with a problem of this magnitude is agree at the very last minute to delay any decisions for a few more months, what hope is there for real change?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The Tea Party Republicans are political extremists who would destroy the United States for their own narrow parochial interests. The next time a debt limit may not pass causing an American and a global financial crisis. The last time in history that political extremists deliberately destroyed their country was when its leader shot himself in the head in a bunker in 1945.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The President is recklessly spending money at rate where he will soon have rung up more debt than all previous administrations combined. Congress takes a few, halting, quixotic steps to do something about it, and somehow they are the irresponsible ones?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    2 things need to happen for the US to get its debt under control. 1) Raise taxes, 2) cut its military budget. Clearly, neither of those things are going to happen unless there is a dramatic shift in the general public mood of the US. America could also limit government spending by limiting the amount spent on elections (over $6bn for the 2012 presidential I believe)

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Unless drastic steps are taken with the support of both parties in the USA, this enormous debt of $17 trillion and rising WILL NEVER BE PAID BACK.

    It is worth noting that not a single dollar the US borrowed to pay for World War I has been paid back - only interest with the capital greatly devalued

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Will this debacle, watched by the rest of the world, have any real influence on internal US politics? I think not, but many people outside the US will see this as a total failure of a political system which looks rickety at best. The worst aspect is, an USA, lurching from one crisis to another does nobody any good.


More US & Canada stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.