Mid-term Madness

Mid-term elections are the constitutionally-mandated pause that refreshes in our political system.

Voters get a chance in the middle of a President’s first or second term to either ratify the status-quo or change it, sometimes dramatically. The 1994 Mid-terms were a classic example of the second type, a seismic political event: Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years and Newt Gingrich gave us the famous Contract with America. It didn’t last: very little of the famous “Contract” was ever put in force, but it shook up the political establishment.

This year could be equally dramatic. With less than three weeks to go, look at what hangs in balance:
–Majority control of the Senate.
–The struggle for the heart of the Republican party, between the centrist establishment, which is more right than ever, and the Tea Party Right, which is more aggressive than ever.
–The fate of President Obama’s final two years in office and his prospects for appointing a new Attorney General and possibly, a Supreme Court Justice.
–Progress — or the lack of it — on major issues like immigration reform, health care implementation, corporate tax reform, just to name three.
–The agenda for a lame-duck session of Congress after the election and, of course, the mid-terms will set the stage for the Presidential election in 2016.

When you consider all that, it is no surprise that the PACs and Super PACs, the so-called “dark money,” have spent record amounts: more than a quarter-billion dollars so far, and still counting. That’s on the right and left combined. That does not count the amounts that the campaigns have raised and spent directly for their candidates.

Some commentators have compared this mid-term election to a Seinfeld episode, that is, about nothing. I don’t think people would be spending all that money if it was about nothing.

Look briefly at what is at stake: Republicans need to pick up six seats to gain a single-vote majority in the Senate. Focusing on the marquee races in key states, like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina, the Republicans have a better-than-even chance of picking up four or five. Six will be a stretch, but it is possible, maybe even likely at this point.

There is a broad, anti-Washington sentiment among the public today that endangers incumbents generally. Congress is down to single digits in the public opinion polls. Little has been accomplished on Capitol Hill and the public knows it.

If the Republicans control both houses, they are going to move to roll back corporate taxes, EPA regulations, defund Obamacare, etc. The President will get out his veto pen and the gridlock will continue.

On the other hand, gridlock is what we have now. We are a divided country these days, so we have divided government.

The House seems certain to stay Republican, very possibly with an increased GOP majority. Earlier in the election season, John Boehner appeared to be in trouble, but his job seems safe now.

The Tea Party has largely failed to dislodge the more centrist establishment candidates in primaries in Mississippi and other states. But in the process, they have moved the whole Republican Party to the right, so the middle isn’t the middle in the GOP anymore, it is to the right of center.

President Obama has already said he would like to pursue immigration reform and other priorities in his remaining two years in office. At this point, it looks as though he will have to fall back on executive orders and actions that don’t require Congressional approval even more than he has in the last two years.

On foreign policy, he may be pushed by a more conservative congress to harden his line against Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But he and Congress are probably closer together on these issues than on domestic topics.

Looking ahead to 2016, the outcome of the midterms will give us a temperature check on the mood of the country and could influence the choice of the Republican candidate. At the moment, Jeb Bush seems to be the choice of establishment republicans, but Marco Rubio represents a younger generation and Rand Paul is a wild card in the GOP picture.

Hillary Clinton seems to be the prohibitive favorite at this point for the Democratic nomination, assuming her health holds up. Imagine: another Bush-Clinton race. Seems odd in a country of 330 million, that we can’t come up with some other names.

The Other Nine Per Cent

Recent public opinion polls — I am sure you’ve seen them — suggest that nine per cent of the American public actually approves of Congress and the way it is doing its job. Of course, that was before this weekend’s bi-partisan wrangling over the payroll tax cut extension.

Who exactly are these nine per cent?

I am curious, since they are such a distinctive group. After all, nine per cent approval is an historic low, even for Congress, exceeded by the approval ratings for polygamy (11 per cent,) BP’s handling of the oil spill (16 per cent,) banks (23 per cent,) and pornography (30 per cent.)

So, I went looking for the nine per cent. I called my neighbor, Representative Pete Stark, D. CA, assuming that he, after 38 years in Congress, surely approved of what he and his 434 colleagues were doing. Are you one of the nine per cent, Pete?

“Heavens, no!” said Congressman Stark.”

And who did he think were the nine per cent?

“Our staff, and our relatives,” he said with a laugh, “and probably not all of them.” I might add that Pete said this on Sunday, as he headed in to the Capitol to cast a rare weekend vote that failed to break the deadlock.

So, who are these nine per cent who think Congress is on top of its work these days?

Add up the Congressional staff, who number around 20,000, lobbyists whose clients have come out on top, the famous special interests, the capitol police, the cafeteria staff, even the bloated office of the architect of the capitol and you still don’t come anywhere near the nine percent, which would amount to some 27 million Americans.

I went to a couple of holiday parties over the weekend and asked everyone I met whether they approved of the way Congress was doing its job. Nope. No nine-percenters there.

If anyone reading this blog is part of the nine per cent, please comment and let me know. And tell me exactly what it is that you approve, please. Is it the fun way Congress takes everything down to the wire? Is it the tendency, demonstrated again over the weekend and into this week to kick the can down the road?

How about the way Congress dealt with the President’s much-advertised jobs bill, which was pronounced D.O.A. when it arrived on the Hill? Did you approve of the way they handled that? Or deficit reduction? Or judicial appointments? Or ambassadorial nominees? Or the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency? Do you love the way they advise and consent on these things? Did you approve of the way they flirted with default a few months ago over the debt ceiling, sending the markets into a tailspin and dropping the nation’s credit rating? If you like delay, gridlock, logjams and half-a-loaf legislation, I suppose you love Congress.

Just guessing here, but I suspect Barak Obama’s greatest shock upon assuming the presidency was how incredibly hard it is to get anything through a divided Congress.
That is, a Senate where 60 votes are required to agree on the time of day. And the House of Representatives, controlled by a majority that, as we saw this weekend, can’t control its own majority. The President, and all of us, are learning that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell meant precisely what he said after the 2008 elections when he announced that his major goal was to assure that Barak Obama was a one-term President. That, and nothing more, apparently.

None of this Congressional inaction comes cheap, incidentally. This year, the American taxpayer will shell out $5.4 billion to fund Congress, its staff and perks. That includes the members, staff, gold-plated health care, generous pensions, the House gym and chaplains for each chamber. Evidently, the nine per cent feels they are getting their money’s worth, since they approve.

So, while the current focus is on presidential race, perhaps more attention should be paid to who leads and controls Congress, that co-equal and disputatious branch of government. How about a few televised debates among the leaders about how they intend to handle things in the next Congress? That could be entertaining.

Meanwhile, will the other nine per cent please stand up?


The dysfunction of the American government has never been so transparent.

With the so-called Super-Committee kaput, more market instability looming and the distinct possibility of another recession, the absolute inability of Washington to solve the nation’s fiscal problems is inescapable.

The task was not that difficult: cut $1.2 trillion out of the budget over the next 10 years to begin to reduce the $15 trillion national debt. The common-sense answer was obvious to ordinary Americans: trim entitlements slightly and increase tax revenues modestly. Combine that with an extension of the payroll tax cut and the soon-to-expire unemployment benefits and there is a good chance the recovery will accelerate. Repeal the senseless Bush tax cuts on the wealthy and the economy could step on the pedal.

But the Super-Committee proved to be no more able to do that than the divided and dysfunctional Congress as a whole. So the blame-game has begun, with plenty to go around. It is a favorite sport in Washington, Capitol Hill’s Thanksgiving gift to the nation. As predictable as a Redskins defeat.

The public will surely spread the blame, charging both parties with the failure, as well as the executive branch. As it should. The Republicans are likely to get the lion’s share and pay the heavier price, but the Democrats, especially the so-called leadership, will pay as well. As it should.

President Obama will not escape this latest debacle. He may have been off in Asia reasserting the U.S. role in that region, but he wasn’t far enough away from the disaster in D.C. to avoid his share of the responsibility. The painful reality of the President’s current situation is that he has a plan: a jobs bill, proposals for an infrastructure bank, tax reform, etc. , that would surely help, but he lacks the political chops to get it enacted. So, ill-served by a weak staff, he fritters around the edges of the problem. His base sticks with him, but the independents he needs to get re-elected are drifting away.

Nonetheless, from the Las Vegas bookmaker’s point of view, he remains the odds-on favorite to be re-elected. Why? The disarray in the Republican field, mainly, and the growing sense among voters that divided government is part of the problem, not the solution. It is inescapably clear that in our system, as it functions today, real progress can only be made when one party or the other controls the White House and Congress.

It is up to be the public to decide which party should be in control. The voters need to give that party the political clout to pursue a solution. If the public doesn’t like the result, they can change it in the next election.

But at least there could be movement, instead of gridlock.