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.


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  • 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 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 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 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 10.

    What on earth does" Bloombergian" mean?


Comments 5 of 20


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