As measured by a recent Gallup poll, the U.S. Congress has a public approval rating of 17 percent. It is a dubious honor the lawmakers have worked hard to earn.
At the end of the year, the members of Congress will face a situation whose resolution — it can be said with only slight exaggeration — is a matter of life and death for the U.S. economy.
At midnight Dec. 31, the Bush-era tax cuts are scheduled to expire, which the Obama White House says will mean an average tax increase next year of $1,600 for 114 million families, a body blow to the economic recovery.
Simultaneously, a 10-year, $1.2 trillion, across-the-board cut is to be imposed on federal spending, also likely to be very damaging to the economy.
Combined, the two would total $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts — and, in the opinion of the Congressional Budget Office, would push the country back into recession.
The automatic spending cuts are part of the Budget Control Act passed last August to defuse a crisis largely manufactured by tea party-led House GOP conservatives. In return for raising the debt limit, the Republicans agreed to leave the spending cuts they were demanding in the hands of a “supercommittee.”
To the surprise of few, the supercommittee failed in its mission. It became clear the lawmakers had voted for it, confident that the unthinkable fallback position — the automatic cuts — would never happen.
As the consequences of those cuts became clear — particularly for the military, which would be gutted, to the delight of some on the political left — members who voted for it are fleeing from the Budget Control Act. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to his credit, called the cuts “a disaster” for our national defense. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it “an unacceptable risk” that increased the likelihood of a conflict.
The House Republicans are now arguing to scrap the automatic cuts in defense and to make up for them by slashing the budget elsewhere. The Democrats would raise the needed funding by letting the tax cuts expire for families earning more than $250,000 a year. In other words, they are willing to risk the nation’s safety in their quest to punish certain Americans with higher taxes.
Neither solution is acceptable to the other side.
Faced with this difficult and perhaps intractable problem, what is Congress planning to do? Take off for a five-week vacation that started Friday. The Congress-watching newspaper The Hill scolded members: “Do your job — you’re lucky to have one.”