Here we go again.
Confronted with record-low approval ratings, Congress seems determined to drive them down even further by planning another game of chicken with the debt ceiling this fall.
The last time they tried this game, the United States lost its Triple-A credit rating as Standard & Poor's opined that "the political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policy making becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable."
Talk about a zero percent learning curve. As you know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Well, this asylum is being run by the inmates.
House Speaker John Boehner told CNN's Erin Burnett at the Peterson Foundation Fiscal Summit that "allowing the debt ceiling to go up without addressing our fiscal challenge would be the most irresponsible thing I could do." In other words, there's a showdown waiting on the other side of this election.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell essentially promised a replay in less responsible terms right after the last fiasco, telling Fox News' Neil Cavuto, "I expect the next president, whoever that is, is going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again in 2013, so we'll be doing it all over."
This followed comments by McConnell that are recounted in the essential new book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," by the bipartisan team of Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein: "Some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn't think that. What we did learn is this -- it's a hostage worth ransoming."
Take a second and think over that language from the Senate minority leader: "It's a hostage worth ransoming."
That's not just the debt ceiling he's talking about. That's the full faith and credit of our country. That's our economy. That's your bottom line.
There is a fiscal cliff coming toward us. We do need to rein in our deficits and debt. They amount to generational theft. The world's largest debtor nation cannot remain the world's sole superpower for long.
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What's frustrating is that we know the way out. It has been detailed in bipartisan plans from the Bowles-Simpson commission to the Rivlin-Domenici commission to the Gang of Six and the outlines of the "grand bargain" that was almost achieved by President Obama and Boehner.
We know that the policy prescription will require spending cuts, revenue increases and entitlement reforms. We also know this bipartisan approach has been killed by people who claim to be fiscal conservatives because they put tax-cut theology over deficit-reduction reality. The super-committee failed on these grounds. And when Bowles-Simpson was last put to a vote, a pathetic 38 congressmen voted for the measure despite the lip service.
We can actually reduce taxes and raise revenue -- a rare win-win -- if we are willing to close loopholes. But that has been attacked as unacceptable by people advancing an anti-tax pledge that even Ronald Reagan violated 11 times. Obama has expressed a willingness to anger his base by taking on entitlement reforms, but he's never put anything on paper to that effect.
Everyone in Washington knows the fiscal cliff is coming, but they won't do anything about it until after the election, because working together could make them more politically vulnerable.
The irony is that while McConnell talks about taking hostages in exchange for ransom and Boehner plans for the next debt-ceiling apocalypse, these two deal-makers must know that they are the ones being held hostage by the most extreme members of their caucus and well-funded special interests who don't want to make a deal. Instead, these forces want to rule or ruin. It's not fiscal conservatism; it's absolutism.
Here's the reality check. Not doing anything might be the bigger risk for incumbents. Actually talking responsibility for avoiding the fiscal cliff is the right and wise thing to do, because there will always be another election. When the lame duck session rolls around, there will be calls to let the people elected in the 2012 cycle take their seats and have their voices heard. We know how the kick-the-can kabuki works. And we know that Washington isn't working.
The only way to solve the long-term problems of deficit and debt will be bipartisan deal-making in which each side gives a little and takes the risk of offending their respective special interests in the national interest. The sandbox politics of throwing tantrums if your team doesn't get everything it wants is not just childish. It is morally and fiscally bankrupt, a reminder of why an old saying exists: The opposite of progress is Congress.