Why can’t congress aim higher?

Congressional budget negotiators are moving to meet a Dec. 13 deadline to produce, well, something.
Dec 8, 2013

For weeks, we’ve been told to keep expectations low. There’ll be no “grand bargain,” negotiators say. Commentators believe that even the narrowest agreement will be a signal achievement. So here’s my question: Doesn’t that seem like an awfully low bar to you?

Yes, I know. The atmosphere on Capitol Hill is poisonous. The two parties — even the various factions within the parties — can barely stand to be in a room with each other. Expecting a sizable budget accomplishment from Congress right now is like expecting water from a rock. It would take a miracle.

Yet there are consequences to not producing an agreement capable of clarifying fiscal affairs. Right now, government agencies cannot plan ahead; they can’t consider long-term projects; they have trouble with staffing; they can’t set priorities; they’re forced to fund programs that have outlived their usefulness and cannot fund programs they know are necessary. And that’s just the federal bureaucracy. Contractors and people who depend on federal spending can’t plan, either. Our economy can’t achieve liftoff, and millions of ordinary Americans remain mired by its slow growth. Washington faces tough choices about spending, taxes, and entitlements, and Congress isn’t making them.

Things are not wholly bleak. Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the lead House negotiator, and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, who heads up the Senate team, have been working at least to address the sequester. As you’ll recall, this is the draconian set of across-the-board budget cuts put in place in 2011. At first, many agencies were able to defer maintenance, spend money they’d squirreled away, and cut staff by attrition. This next year will be much tougher: agencies are out of easy options, and defense spending faces an immense, $21 billion cut. That will be felt in every congressional district in the country, given how adept the Defense Department has been at spreading its largesse around. Not surprisingly, pressure is coming from both sides of the aisle to ease the impact.

The sequester is a cleaver, cutting good and bad government spending without rhyme or reason. If congressional negotiators can take a smarter approach, that’s all to the good.

But if they’re going to do that, shouldn’t they address the real problems? The country needs gradual deficit reduction that avoids disrupting the economy or harming the vulnerable. It needs reforms to Social Security and Medicare that put them on a solid footing for decades to come.

These are daunting challenges, but Congress’s toolbox is hardly empty. It could limit itemized tax deductions, increase Medicare premiums for the well-to-do, place caps on spending, shave federal employee benefits to bring them in line with the private sector, increase government fees, sell public assets, put more of the wireless spectrum up for bid, increase the Social Security contributions of higher-income earners, change the consumer price index.... There are literally scores of possibilities, none of them easy, but all of them offering adroit negotiators the chance to craft a long-term solution to problems that have beset Capitol Hill for years and held economic growth far below its potential.

By addressing these issues head on, Congress could move beyond the political machinations that have deeply frustrated so many Americans, and play a constructive role in the economy: promoting growth by investment in infrastructure and basic research, providing incentives for entrepreneurship and job creation. It could create a responsible framework for reducing spending as the economy grows. It could reform a tax code that everyone agrees is broken.

At some point, Congress will have to put the federal budget on “a sustainable path for the long term,” in the words of the CBO. So long as it does not, the economic consequences hurt everyone. Congressional leaders seem blissfully unconcerned about this and aim only for low-hanging fruit, but Americans know that Congress can and should do better, and are rightly tired of careening from crisis to crisis. As members of Congress continue to make politically attractive suggestions that don’t come close to achieving a lasting solution, let’s urge them to get real. It’s time for Congress to go big.

— By Lee H. Hamilton, Center on Congress


Mystic Michael

Well, let's see if we can deconstruct this problem just a bit - instead of generalizing it to the point of nonsense & irrelevance:

On the one hand, you've got the party that believes in the power of government to positively affect the lives of its citizens. For the past five years, this party has been trying gamely to accomplish this very thing - by creating jobs for the masses of unemployed; by rebuilding the nation's aging infrastructure; by expanding public access to healthcare services; by providing entrepreneurial incentives for the creation of new products/services, new companies, and new industries; by reprioritizing & supporting higher education; and by putting hundreds of thousands of displaced public servants (i.e. police officers, firefighters, schoolteachers, etc.) back to work, and much more. But in order to be maximally effective, this party ultimately needs the constructive participation of the other major party. We'll call this party of belief in government, Party #1.

On the other hand, you've got the party that serves mostly the interests of the plutocrats and the already privileged & powerful; that distrusts & despises government - and doesn't miss an opportunity to sabotage and undermine it, in order to "prove" its ongoing point that "government doesn't work". For the past five years, this party has been fighting tooth & nail to oppose every single initiative put forth by Party #1 - and most especially by the President himself - even policies & programs that it had once enthusiastically supported not many years ago, out of pure spite & resentment: because it doesn't want Party #1 or the President to get the credit. Having successfully gerrymandered many Congressional districts, this party has largely insulated itself from any ordinary political punishment for its obstruction, and by this same means has even managed to hold on to its illegitimate majority in the House of Representatives. Let's call this Party #2.

The answer to former Congressman Hamilton's rhetorical question lies in game theory. And it brings up a related question: What possible incentive does Party #2 have to cooperate with Party #1 for the collective good of the entire country and its people, if by doing so it would be perceived as "losing face" politically, by willingly participating in the public exposure of its bankrupt ideology? Can we not see that until Party #2 feels more political pain by continuing to obstruct progress than it would by cooperating constructively in that progress, that nothing will change?

Is it not equally obvious that by continuing to refer to the culprit as "Congress" collectively speaking - rather than examining & acknowledging the actual internal political dynamics within Congress that have just been pointed out - that we deliberately participate in the ongoing obfuscation of the problem that makes it so intractable, so impervious to solution - and that we thereby continue to contribute to our own confusion & frustration?

Until we lose our collective fear to use the "D" word to characterize Party #1, and the "R" word to characterize Party #2, and that it therefore becomes universally acceptable to state things the way they actually are - by the news media, by former public officials, and by everybody - the scoundrels in Party #2 will continue to abuse their power & their authority, to the detriment of the 99% of us. And nothing will ever change for the better.


Brilliant assessment, again, Mystic Michael. There is little to add, except that the game should be titled, 'False Equivalency Blame Game for Dummies'. The entire spectrum, from all points north, south, east and west, has fallen into the trap of blaming all of Congress. While of course there is enough blame to go around, let's not take the easy road and lump the whole lot of them together. We must acknowledge there are degrees of blame.

There's a reason why Congress - particularly the House - has the lowest approval ratings in history....the far right wing has managed to halt progress to the point that the current Congress has officially become the least productive in US history. While they feel justified and affirmed by this fact, the country suffers in ways both short-term and long-term.


Why Can't congress aim higher? They have prostate issues!


....among other things. Clever interpretation of a heading that apparently went right over our collective heads!! :)


Hit the nail on the head. That being said, both sides of the fence are full of douchebags.

But you are totally right; stuff the republicans loved a few years ago, they are violently against now that the democrats are in power. 'Obamacare' is damn near exactly what Romney was pushing in years past. Remember, Obama wanted single payer; what we actually got is exactly what the republicans pushed in the past, yet they are now totally against it just to derail the democrats.

Like I said, bot sides are nothing but douchebags that only look out for their corporate interests and not what is good for the citizens and I am losing faith that we will ever make any positive progress until we boot them ALL out and start on a clean slate.

Don't even get me started on the Tea Party, which admittedly started out as a humble grassroots movement, but was quickly taken over and is now totally run by the Koch brothers and their corporate friends; sadly many of the well-meaning Tea Partiers blindly follow the group and don't look into its structure or how it has been turned completely around from what it originally stood for. They just blindly spout the talking points without thinking.

The economy is doing absolutely great right now - if you are a corporation; it only sucks for small business owners and the working class. Nearly every medium to large corporation out there is making record profits the past few years thanks to the government being bought out; sadly instead of passing some of that success onto their workforce, they cut wages and lay people off. When was the last time you heard of a company offering profit-sharing or actually treating its employees good?


I would have expected Vlad to be in here by now :(

Mystic Michael

Count yer blessings! ; )


SM - off-topic, but thought of you...My year without a car.....http://www.salon.com/2013/12/09/...


Thanks for sharing. A good read. :)

I can't totally get away from the car since most of my family lives on the east side of the state and up in the U.P., plus I travel to Beulah a lot to spend time where I grew up in the summer months as a child/teen.

During better weather though I do most of my commuting around town on the bike though; it is typically faster than in a car around town, great exercise, and you get to know the city on a more intimate level than you can in a car. I also enjoy the longer multi-day tours on the bike (like from Thompsonville, to Frankfort, around the Leelanau Peninsula, TC and up to Petoskey).


Well, let's see if we can deconstruct this comment that generalizes to the point of caricature.

Your one wonderful, mythical political party, believing in punishing those who are successful because it supports equality of outcomes and not equality of opportunity, and redistributing the wealth through the coercive power of government, is proving once again that the policies of socialism hurt both the successful and those who have been forced to be dependent on government. "Creating jobs for the masses"? We can see that in the unprecedented unemployment rates and drop in the labor participation rate under Obama, even after he wasted well over a TRILLION dollars on the stimulus that went to his democrat cronies and did nothing to help the unemployed or the infrastructure it was supposed to repair unless they were public union employees (remember Obama belatedly discovering all his "shovel ready jobs" weren't shovel ready)? "Providing entrepreneurial opportunities", like giving billions to failed environmental projects like Solyndra, Tesla, and all the other wasteful green energy failures while stopping good construction and manufacturing jobs by greatly diminishing oil and gas production from federal lands and refusing to allow the Keystone Pipeline? And "expanding public access to healthcare" by lying about folks keeping their insurance plans and doctors and replacing our system with one that is failing as we speak, causing exponentially more people to lose their health insurance than are signing up for Obamacare at higher prices with limited access to doctors and hospitals? Is that what you're talking about, oh great one? And "reprioritizing & supporting" higher education by federalizing the student loan program, thereby driving up the cost of college education, ensuring students have to go the only existing source for college loans - the government, which has earned a profit of $51 BILLION off the students (per Elizabeth Warren) thus leaving students with huge debts going into a non-existent job market, all in the name of the government making things better for everyone - is that what you're talking about, Bucky?

And somehow your rant failed to note that Obama has driven debt higher than any other President, which coupled with his failed socialistic policies of re-distribution of wealth and job destruction coupled with increased spending have ensured that there will be insufficient tax dollars from the employed to even make a dent in the debt. (I know, soak the rich for more - don't even mention it - you could take every dime from the top 1% and you couldn't make a dent in the debt caused by the policies of both parties, but raised more under Obama than any other President.) And you failed to note his stunning foreign policy failures, including losing Egypt, Syria (line in the sand, not) and Libya to Moslem extremists (jihadists) to appeasing Iran to the point the democrats in Congress are poised to increase the sanctions he raised, to forcing the Saudi's and Israeli's to conclude they can neither rely upon nor trust Obama.

And you failed to mention his unconstitutional activities, as acknowledged by well respected liberal law professor Jonathan Turley, by failing to enforce laws he disagrees with politically, like our Immigration Laws and Obamacare itself.

So, when Obama and the democrats propose doubling down on and going all-in, to use a Texas Holdem term, to continue and increase these failed policies of socialism and redistribution and crony capitalism, you skewer the representatives of the people closest to the people, the House of Representatives, (and Ted Cruz and Rand Paul in the Senate) for doing what their constituents sent them there to do and opposing the policies that are killing jobs and putting our children and grandchildren in debt to the extent they will never enjoy a middle class standard of living? Sorry, MM but you don't understand the basics of the republican form of government that has caused us to prosper for over 200 years (but of course you do understand the concept of a republic and a representative democracy - you just don't like it and would like to replace it with a government founded on your idea that you and your pals can do socialism better than it's ever been done in the past). Good luck with that.


(grabbing a cup of coffee for myself and Vlad while waiting for MM and the merry band of liberals to put a spin on the above comment)


Keep drinking that coffee newsblogger. We have to wait for the obama wannabees to wake up. Looks like they were up late spewing their liberal mantras. Check back after the rest of us get out of work for the day!

Barry Soetoro

The spin cycle operates 24/7.


1.) "..proving once again that the policies of socialism hurt both the successful and those who have been forced to be dependent on government."
Socialism is a system whereby major industries are owned and controlled by government. The term 'socialism' certainly doesn't pertain; if anything, the US is trending towards corporatocracy, where government is controlled by corporate interests. Labeling progressive policies, such as Obamacare, as socialism is blatantly false. A socialistic health care system would be one where government runs the hospitals, employs the doctors, etc, and certainly you must agree with me that this is simply not the case with the ACA.

2.) "..did nothing to help the unemployed or the infrastructure it was supposed to repair..". It is Obama who is asking for an extension of unemployment benefits, but the Republicans, led by conservative groups such as Heritage Action, are being told they must let the benefits expire. As for infrastructure, Obama's American Jobs Act, which the CBO estimated would have created over a million jobs, called for stimulus spending in the form of immediate infrastructure investment, but it was the Republicans who blocked the bill from being passed. http://thinkprogress.org/economy...

3.) "Obama has driven debt higher than any other President,..". Of course, you know this is not true. Many charts, facts, and figures have been linked to this topic, all showing that the burgeoning debt has been increasing for 30 years, with the Iraqi and Afghan Wars, coupled with tax cuts and Medicare Part D as the major causes of the current debt increases - not Obama. And I suppose I should once again remind you that the deficit has fallen further under Obama than any other president in modern history.

4.) "..his stunning foreign policy failures..". I beg to differ. I note that the US has not entered into any wars under Obama, and there has not been a catastrophic 9/11-type attack on the US. Obama is directing more US diplomacy energy towards Asia and less towards the Middle East - a very far-reaching strategy. And besides, who says the US has to be the world's policeman for the rest of time? The idea that the US must fund and manipulate every foreign skirmish is so 20th century; it's form of global welfare that really should be tweaked. Let other developed nations do some of the heavy lifting. As it is, the US towers over the rest of the world in defense spending. In 2012, the US spent $647.7 billion, Asia spent $314.9, and Europe spent $280.1.

5.) "and Ted Cruz and Rand Paul in the Senate..". I remind you that Ted Cruz barely squeaked by in the Texas general election, winning with a very narrow margin, and Rand Paul might have some trouble explaining his attempts to repeal Obamacare when re-election rolls around, when reports coming from Kentucky are that Obamacare in that state is a rousing success, and a model for the rest of the states in terms of glitch-free exchanges.

I could continue, but the point has been made.


I don't even argue with these people anymore. I don't like either party one bit, yet somehow I am labeled a liberal just because I don't buy into the crap Fox News and the Tea Party and their corporate backers spew.

I am worried about the whole unemployment extension though. I am on state unemployment for the time being after being let go for blowing the whistle on some pretty serious federal violations by my employer (which could have easily gotten someone from the public killed at a railroad crossing).

I run out of my 20 weeks December 31st. I am NOT someone who sits on my butt at home collecting unemployment (and I feel people that do that should simply be cut off). I am looking for work every single day. I have actually been told many times that I am over qualified for positions (that was a new one to me!) or that even though a job was posted publicly, they were not hiring outside people to the positions.

I HATE sitting at home, so I have been filling the time between job-hunting with seriously ramping up my contributions doing volunteer projects, meetings for another thing I am involved in which will have a few surprises next season (you can probably guess what it is), and educating myself on audio engineering (I took a couple college courses on the subject way back when, and am an audiophile, but now I am really digging in deep to learn).

Even with all the volunteer work to help me get through my (hopefully short) period of unemployment, it gets downright depressing knowing that I cannot properly support myself and my fiancé like I used to on my income alone, and it breaks my heart to see her have to work non-stop to pick up the slack.

I honestly have no clue what I am going to do after the 31st if it is not extended.


Welcome to the world of too many. The un or under employed. Many unemployed are 50+ who have been put out of work for the first time in their lives by downsizing (or cleansing of older workers for younger workers). These people who were loyal employees for manny years were just walked to their car because MI is an at-will state. They not only lose their job, but lose their health insurance also. They are forced to live off their retirement savings once unemployment runs out. Not sitting on any butts, but like you, applying for jobs that 30 20-somethings are applying for doesn't get you past the 1st interview. Rejection for any reason sucks and makes one feel less worthy, and many rejections deflates moral. Now multiply that by two 50+ adults and you have the predicament of some households in the immediate area. It is not easy to be unemployed. And if you find work, employers like to give you 10 hours a week @ 8.00/hr around here. Good luck with your search for work anywhere in W. MI.
side- Seems like you could talk to an attorney about the Federal 'Whistle Blower's Act' (no pun intended).


I'm only 31 and having an impossibly hard time finding something, so I cannot even imagine what it is like for older folks. I'm even looking at jobs I would have never even considered in the past; still no bites. I don't need to make a ton of money (I can get by just fine on $1000-1200/mo. And once my car is paid off in 13 months, that will drop considerably) but like you said, even when you are employed, it is getting hard to get the hours or a living wage.

There are more, and higher quality jobs around here though (I don't quite agree with you on that point). Growing up in Flint, I have seen how bad things can get. Over there, nearly everything is boarded up and there are literally no jobs. At least in Grand Haven you very rarely see boarded up businesses. The only issue here is employers are getting greedy with their hiring and will refuse to even look at a candidate if they don't have a masters degree and five years of experience (no matter their real-life skill set).

And my case with the FRA is finally starting its investigative stage (gotta love how incredibly slow the Feds work). The company I used to work for is imploding on itself. Talked to a friend a couple days ago who still works for them. He said they lost two employees last week. They can't get anyone to work for them due to their demands they place on employees (24/7/365 on call, must stay within 30 minutes of truck at all times). The two that left finally got sick of living in a motel in Muskegon Heights for weeks at a time away from their family and children. That leaves two people covering Saginaw/Bay City/Durand/Owosso as well as this side of the state from Fremont to West Olive and part of GR. All those crossings need to be inspected monthly. It is scary to think how the inspection quality will suffer.

I am worried about the future.


Your comments here are troubling, on many levels. From what you have shared in this forum, I consider you to be the poster boy for a smart, energetic, resourceful young person with a terrific work ethic and a can-do spirit. I am dismayed that you are having such a hard time getting a job, and I sincerely hope your luck breaks soon and you find a position that works for you, and one in which you can utilize your talents and skills to the benefit of a new employer. You mentioned once (if I remember correctly) that you were pursuing a self-employment opportunity - didn't work out?

Troubling also are your opinions regarding your former employer. Sounds like a train wreck waiting to happen (pun intended, but I realize it's not really funny). Do you think bad company policy is the culprit? Government over-regulation? Not enough enforcement of existing regulations? Has this been going on for a long time? I'm curious to hear your more detailed assessment, if you think you can respond.


It is a mix of company policy (the employee handbook was full of rules that are blatantly illegal under current labor laws), and the lack of enforcement by the government on existing regulations designed to keep employees and the public safe.

The company is run by a guy and his daughters, and the supervisors are married to those daughters. The management style was totally fear-based. It was nothing to be screamed at a couple times a day by the owners daughters over incredibly minor stuff that was out of our control. They never paid right for hours worked, made illegal deductions from pay on a regular basis without our consent (there have been several times where even though I was making over $20/hr, I would be paid the equivalent of less than minimum wage after their deductions).

The thing that bothered me the most though was being forced by the owner and his daughters to falsify federal forms or be fired in order to save the company a few dollars, or triggering a red flag at the FRA. These forms included Federal Hours Of Service, as well as monthly crossing inspection forms.

I literally saw my supervisor or any other coworkers less than one or two days a year. If I needed help with a project that required multiple people, I was often left to do it on my own and then get screamed at when I was not able to finish it on their schedule.

I am not one to complain about an employer, and in fact I have worked some pretty horrid jobs in my time, but this place was just bad. The fact that they cannot even fill my old position let alone the many other open positions they have just backs this up. You would think that people would be lining up for a $20/hr job that doesn't require much experience to start, but once they learn about all the company rules and how they cannot travel more than a 30-45 minutes from their truck at any time and must head out immediately upon receiving a call, it's no wonder why nobody wants the job.


Just heard that they came to a budget deal, but did not approve an extension on unemployment. Things are about to get real tough for a ton of Americans who truly want to work but cannot find a job.


The only option is to speak out, keep folks informed, and hopefully the perpetrators (the Tea Party Republicans) will be voted out of office.

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