A less perfect Union
We don't expect a perfect Union. The Founders didn't promise perfection; they promised a structure in order to work toward a "more" perfect one. Historically, we always understood that perfection in government is a fantasy, politics is a people business. That's where the problem comes in.
People are – at their core – imperfect.
Take where we are today. European financial systems are collapsing faster than a fat guy on The Biggest Loser. Here at home, when our political leadership in Washington could define their greatest moment, they collectively appear unable to find their hind parts with a map, a compass and a flashlight.
Fumbling, mumbling and bumbling their way to the lowest congressional approval rating in history, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress had better watch it. Charles Manson may end up with a higher overall approval than our federal legislature!
It's not just representatives and senators, either. This stunning lack of leadership drama has a number of key actors, principal among them President Barack Obama. Surely you remember the promises to change the culture in Washington? Hope and change, a slogan designed to inspire us to hold government to a higher standard, has morphed into a joke.
The president can call up an Army. He can veto congressional actions. He can pardon the accused. What he apparently can't do is sit down with congressional leaders and negotiate a solution to the nation's biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.
President Obama understood the seriousness of the economic collapse following his historic election. He lobbied for and received support to save the auto industry, following President George W. Bush's led on the financial services sector.
He was so worried about the future that he called for historic reforms of the financial services sector. He must have known the ills well, as Wall Street is more responsible for President Obama's election than any other special interest group or funding source.
The president also convened a panel of experts to examine ways to reduce our crushing national debt. The Simpson/Bowles Commission spent months studying options and produced a comprehensive report detailing aggressive steps to cut the debt and right our fiscal ship.
Bipartisan by design, Simpson/Bowles represented a breakthrough, the possibility of a truly groundbreaking approach to solving a vexing political problem. In the end, the commission was true to their charge. They recommended sweeping reforms including eliminating tax loopholes, a higher marginal tax rate on millionaires, and changes to Social Security and Medicare to strengthen those vital programs.
The president, recognizing the pitfalls within his own base of examining serious reform of major entitlement spending (Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security), took the gutless path and ignored Simpson/Bowles. House and Senate Democrats, fueled by big labor, will never allow these entitlement changes to take place. No matter the necessity or urgency, ideology will always triumph.
He then tried to negotiate a side deal with Republican House Speaker John Boehner (R., OH).
It seemed like the old days, when President Ronald Reagan met alone with House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill to hammer out budget deals over a glass of well-aged scotch.
Unfortunately, President Obama and Speaker Boehner are not Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill, not even close. These two couldn't agree on which tie to wear, much less how to reduce the deficit. Their talks led nowhere.
Another aspect of the problem was the House GOP majority. Elected following the reckless spending of the Bush Administration, these Republican legislators, especially the freshmen, had no incentive to seek budgetary compromise.
Many of these same legislators had signed a No-Tax pledge offered by a group called Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). Led by lobbyist Grover Norquist, ATR boasts a direct-mail client list of anti-tax businesses and voters in districts all over the country. Mr. Norquist offers candidates the chance to promise these voters that they will never vote for any tax increases during their term (2 or 6 years depending on their race).
This is the same Grover Norquist who worked in a legal conspiracy with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff to fool Indian tribal leaders into paying for representation on casinos while secretly funneling money to anti-gaming advocates.
In other words, a couple of real slimeballs.
So, the GOP legislators who have signed Mr. Norquist’s form fear reprisals at the ballot if they violate their promise to him. Ignore the fact that a voter shouldn't vote for a fool who goes around signing pledges anyway.
Whatever happened to voting for ideas, principles and intellect?
So, it was in this context that the Congress designed the supposed solution, and President Obama willingly agreed.
If they couldn't work together to fashion a legislative compromise, they would be forced into sequestration, an extra-constitutional process whereby automatic cuts are triggered to achieve that which men (and women) seemed unable to achieve.
The Super Committee was formed, a 12-member team of the best and brightest. Okay, that's going too far.
Who was our Super Committee? How about Sen. Patty Murray (D., WA), the Senate Super Committee chairman. Ms. Murray also happens to serve as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, the person most directly responsible for replacing Republican senators with more Democrats.
Or, maybe Rep. James Clyburn (D., SC), a lion of the civil rights movement. If only he weren't a hand-picked member of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's leadership, he might have some independence and credibility.
Republicans are no better. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R., TX), the House chairman of this so-called Super Committee, is a signatory to the aforementioned no-tax pledge. He's not the only one, either. Four of the six GOP members of this committee had elected to sign, meaning they had determined their biases and positions before beginning deliberations.
So, now they all claim they are unable to solve the problem, triggering the automatic sequestration. Severe cuts will follow, cuts in domestic discretionary spending as well as drastic cuts to our national defense.
The Founders identified the obligation to develop and maintain a strong national defense as one of the most important roles of the Congress and federal government. Now, we'll see cuts in programs, people and services that keep our nation strong in an increasingly dangerous world.
In the late 1700's, the Founders argued over creating tax structures to pay for our developing nation's maritime defense. The construction of six frigates in ports around the country was seen as a way to create vibrancy in the economy of states while making good on the promise of the Constitution.
The arguments were passionate and complicated. There were going to be winners and losers, but in the end, the interests of the country came first.
Today, nothing could be further from true. Instead of Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and John Adams arguing for hours over candlelight and a warm pint, we get congressional Republicans who signed away their right to lead to a lobbyist, Democrats who would rather fail than reform Medicare, and a president who is either too smart or too disengaged to get them all together.
Can anyone say "term limits?" A combination of term limits and public campaign finance might be our best path to a more perfect Union.