Middle-class America holds no influence over Congress  

The rest of the world watched the latest game of chicken over the U.S. government shutdown, which stretched on for more than two weeks and threatened to result in financial default, all of which again raised the question of whether the world’s leading power has lost the capacity to govern itself. Congress has not passed a proper budget since 2009.

The first government shutdown in 17 years ended when the Senate and the House of Representatives reached another 11th hour deal to avoid a financial default and get the government running again late on the evening of Oct. 16. The president signed the legislation early the next day. The bill approved funding the government until Jan. 15, 2014 and suspended the nation’s borrowing limit of $16.7 trillion until Feb. 7.

Of course, Congress could not resist larding the legislation with pork. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was instrumental in ending the crisis, got $2.9 billion for a dam in his home state of Kentucky. Congress also awarded the widow of the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg $174,000, the equivalent of one year’s salary. In 2012, the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call named Lautenberg one of the 50 richest members of Congress with a net worth of about $56.8 million.

The threat of a government default is off the table for now. But instead of resolving underlying disputes, the short-term deal only pushed the hard choices off to another day. It gives the parties some time to  cool off and negotiate a broader spending plan.

Brace yourself for another cliffhanger that resembles a bad daytime soap opera. America will continue its habit of governing by crisis after crisis after crisis. In this troubled political environment, is it any wonder that businesses are sitting on their cash rather than investing in new factories, equipment, and more workers?

As part of the recent deal, the House and Senate will appoint members to a bipartisan group tasked with hammering out an agreement by Dec. 13 on a blueprint for tax and spending policies over the next decade, that may include tax increases and structural reforms to entitlement programs such as Medicare something the two parties have not agreed on in years.

Given the recent track record, the chance that this new forum can deliver by its deadline, in time for Congress to act by Jan. 15, on funding to keep the government open, is slim to none.

Can the U.S. recover its tarnished image? Is the recent dysfunction in Washington now behind us, or is it destined to become part of the permanent bleak political landscape?

Conventional wisdom holds that the deal made in Washington guarantees another shutdown and debt ceiling fight early next year. In other words, Americans will soon be witnessing another psychodrama being played out with politicians again acting badly, more divided than ever, and pulled apart by two different conceptions of government.

If you believe the political roosters on Capitol Hill can be counted on to stop squawking, bridge the gap between competing visions of the role of government and reach agreement on critical problems ranging from employment to energy to entitlements to education, then you have every confidence in the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.

The average hard-working, middle-class family is coming to recognize that they don’t have a shred of influence and that our leaders in Washington seem to care only about those who write the checks that allow them to stay in power. Nobody wants to have to say it, but Americans need to read it to begin to understand that campaign contributions are politicians’ favorite form of catnip.

originally published: November 2, 2013

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