America’s dysfunctional Congress – and the ‘Fiscal Cliff’

Well, the United States this week barely avoided dropping off the “fiscal cliff”– although in the months ahead more fiscal crises are feared because of conflicts between President Barack Obama and Congress.

Comedian Milton Berle once declared, “You can lead a man to Congress, but you can’t make him think.”

The writer Mark Twain was even harsher stating “there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”

But it’s been no joke as 2013 began and U.S. taxpayers faced huge tax increases and the government’s draconian cutbacks if an agreement between Obama and Congress didn’t happen as the year started. It didn’t – but amid widespread criticism of Congress a pact was reached a day later.

The Long Island newspaper Newsday ran an editorial headed “Congress Made This Mess” with a subhead declaring that the “fiscal cliff” is a “metaphor for failure.” It was accompanied by a cartoon depicting the dropping of a ball – labeled “dysfunction” – alongside the dome of the U.S. capitol. “So the new year may start off much like the old ended, with an epic failure to govern,” opined Newsday

The U.S. Congress has been seen as dysfunctional for some time.

Last summer, Gallup reported that its polling showed only one-in-10 Americans “approve the job Congress is doing.” This tied, it noted, with the “all-time low” of 10 percent approval in a Gallup poll the year before “as the lowest in Gallup’s 38 year history of this measure. Eighty-three percent disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.”

Much of this has to do with the public perception – an accurate one – that most members of Congress have been bought via campaign contributions by special interests.

Indeed, making the rounds of the Internet in recent years has been the posting: “Members of Congress should be compelled to wear uniforms like NASCAR drivers, so we could identify their sponsors.”

Then there’s been this repeated posting: “Now I understand! The English language has some wonderfully anthropomorphic collective nouns for various groups of animals. We are all familiar with a Herd of cows, a Flock of chickens, a School of fish and a Gaggle of geese. However, less widely known is a Pride of lions, a Murder of crows…an Exaltation of doves and, presumably because they look so wise, a Parliament of owls. Now consider a group of baboons. They are the loudest, most dangerous, most obnoxious, most viciously aggressive and least intelligent of all primates. And what is the proper collective noun for a group of baboons? Believe it or not….a Congress! I guess that pretty much explains the things that come out of Washington! Look it up. A group of baboons is a Congress.”

A very low opinion of the U.S. Congress is not new in America.

Way back, humorist Will Rogers said: “The country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.”

And when some members of Congress gave the same kind of hard time to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that is being given to Obama, Rogers said: “And kid Congress…don’t scold ’em. They are just children thats never grown up. They don’t like to be corrected in company. Don’t send messages to ’em, send candy.”

Before that, Mark Twain also wrote: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

Now confidence in and respect for Congress has reached a low point.

The perception matches reality. For example, the 112th Congress, which ended as 2012 finished and was replaced this week by the 113th, “is set to go down in American history as the most unproductive session since the 1940s,” wrote Amanda Terkel last week on The Huffington Post. It passed slightly more than 200 bills that became law. This is “far less than the 80th Congress (1947-1948) which President Harry Truman infamously dubbed the “Do-Nothing Congress” which passed 900 bills that became law.”

Part of the problem is what has been termed “congressional stagnation”—a theory holding that the U.S. Congress has become stagnant as a result of the continuous re-election of nearly all of its incumbents.

Indeed, notes the Center for Responsive Politics: “Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection. With wide name recognition, and usually an insurmountable advantage in campaign cash, House incumbents typically have little trouble holding onto their seats.”

Also, making members of Congress ever more the instruments of special interests with money is the ever-skyrocketing cost of political campaigns in America—mainly for political TV commercials which have become the principal element in major U.S. political contests.

The Center for Responsive Politics notes that the 2012 election campaign was the “most expensive election in U.S. history”—costing $6 billion. “House and Senate candidates combined will spend about $1.82 billion,” the Washington, D.C.-based organization reported, And “congressional races are being affected by the huge increase in outside spending.”

“In the new campaign finance landscape post-Citizens United, we’re seeing historic spending levels spurred by outside groups dominated by a small number of individuals and organizations making exceptional contributions,” said Sheila Krumholz, director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is the title of the 2010 decision by an arch-conservative led majority on the U.S. Supreme Court—a counterpart to the arch-conservative Tea Party zealots in Congress leading the fight against Obama—that prohibited the U.S. government from restricting campaign contributions from corporations. This has triggered a multi-billion dollar outpouring of corporate money into American politics.

The mighty dollar rides higher than ever in the U.S.

And, as Alex Gibney, maker of the documentary “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” has said, we have “a system of legalized bribery in Washington.”

This reflects directly on the low, low level of Congress doing anything—and, when it does, mainly serving special interests.

Change–major change–is desperately needed.

About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.