Hanes HallbirnWednesday,2 January 2013

The Snap:

Earlier this week, the House passed a Senate-approved bill to pull the U.S. back over the ledge of the so-called fiscal cliff (a strong start… “so-called” equals two shots!). As dramatic as the press may make the process and back room deals out to be, this “crisis” was one that Congress brought upon itself due to both procrastination and ideological rigidity. Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker perhaps sums it up best: “Official Washington was in celebration mode on New Year’s Day after kind of averting a completely unnecessary crisis that was entirely of its own creation.”

The Download:

While your average “man on the street” — or, for me, “man at the bar stool next to me while I drink up from too much talk about the Fiscal Cliff” (that’s shot number three) — is more than willing to oversimplify the situation with solutions such as, “Just lock them in a room and don’t let them out until they’ve reached an agreement,” it’s just not that easy — for a few reasons.

First, as Adrienne Boettinger notes, the public, taken as a whole, largely ignores and fails to punish poor leadership:

Here’s the problem, folks. We elected these people. We keep them employed. Yet the vast majority of us don’t contact our representatives to let them know our positions. We don’t flood their offices with calls or emails and most amazingly we elect them year after year. Not to worry though because our silence isn’t noticeable amidst the yells of lobbyists and Super PACs, like my BFF’s at the NRA.

That’s right. It’s partially our fault that we’re in this mess. While we all love to complain, our memories are short. I’d wager my next round of drinks (which I hold dear, by the way) that the percentage of Americans who vote against their current Congressional representation during the next election cycle, due to inactivity related to Fiscal Cliff (that’s four!) negotiations, will hover somewhere in the low single digits as a percentage of the voting population.

Second, as Matt Healey so masterfully explains, our elected officials actually ARE doing their jobs by adhering to inflexible dogmas such as “no tax increases, ever.” How? Because these politicians serve rabid bases who are less likely to punish them for inaction, and more prone to punish them for the type of action that tends to yield results in Washington — tough compromises that produce deals in which everybody gives up ground on some principles, while adhering to others, in order to do what’s best overall for the nation.

This brings me to the third reason that we’re stuck with a system that bears little fruit (or at least, bore little fruit in this circumstance): lack of term limits for elected officials. And yes, I know that term limits have been debated ad nauseam. But if there’s ever a reason to bring them up again for a thorough national debate, it’s the overriding fear on the part of Senators and Congress(wo)men to strike conciliatory poses during Fiscal Cliff (five… officially crunked now) discussions. Case in point: the GOP’s “no tax pledge,” which many Republicans refused to break, but which others did in order get a deal done. Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post sums up the potential downfall for one such line-crosser, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky:

But he risked miscalculating the almost suicidal opposition of the new, younger rank-and-file GOP to tax increases of any kind, especially the iconic income rates cut by former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The Tea Party would rather, in general, bring the global economy to a halt than cut a deal… Whether McConnell’s championing of the tax deal will cost him in Kentucky isn’t clear — yet… But if national conservative groups see him as weak or a traitor — and some are already talking that way — there could be national money on the table to fund a bid.

And therein lies the problem. Because we continue to allow “politician” to be a potential life-long career, our representatives will always have to look over their shoulders out of fear of being painted with scarlet T’s (for taxes) and C’s (for spending cuts) by the extreme wings of their respective parties, who will happily fund more of their zealous ilk.

Term limits solve this problem. The Roman Empire enforced them, and the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enforces a limit for the U.S. Presidency.

So why not Congress?

If we put them in place for the Legislative Branch, then our Reps will no longer need to worry about shortened careers (they’d all be short). Furthermore, we’ll eliminate powerful Congressional king-makers who hold enough sway to damage the careers of their less-dogmatic colleagues. With term limits, legislators simply won’t be able to make careers out of their current jobs. Instead, they’ll all have brief windows to come to Washington, fight hard for their constituencies, and then ultimately collaborate to do what’s right. All we need now is a group of Representatives who are not only bold enough to re-ignite a term limits discussion, but also influential enough to get the rest of Congress on board with term limits (thus limiting their political careers).

So yeah, we’re pretty much stuck with this circus, and all the future “cliffs” that it sows. And a lack of term limits are the biggest reason why.

Hat Tips:

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons



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