Congress officially adjourned for the year yesterday when Representative Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA) brought down the gavel and declared class dismissed until January 2012. When Democrats protested that the majority had not allowed a vote on the bipartisan Senate deal to avoid raising the payroll tax on 160 million American workers, the GOP cut the microphones and cameras so Americans could not hear their protestations. This remarkable move prompted C-SPAN—responsible for filming the sessions so Americans can keep tabs on their lawmakers—to publicly exonerate themselves, tweeting, “C-SPAN has no control over the U.S. House TV cameras—the Speaker of the House does.”
It’s as if Speaker Boehner thinks that by shutting down the cameras, turning off the lights and going home, the movie is over. Only—to state what’s obvious to anyone who is not in the DC fog—this “movie” is a real-life nightmare for too many Americans. If this were a screenplay, this move would be a perfect way to wrap up the year defined by hyper-partisan gridlock. Cutting the C-SPAN feed that offers at least some transparency to Congress’s machinations puts an exclamation point on the ruthless serial political brinkmanship that now stands in for the business of governing the country.
Pundits and Democratic party officials have been quick to point out that Republicans bear the brunt of responsibility for this one. Representative Fitzpatrick closed the session as Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was trying to bring up the Senate deal, and he literally walked out of the chamber with his Republican colleagues, leaving Hoyer to narrate their exit:
“You’re walking out, you’re walking away, just as so many Republicans have walked away from middle class taxpayers, the unemployed, and… those who will be seeking medical assistance from their doctors.”
See it for yourself here:
To add insult to injury, as this scene was playing out in the House chamber, Republican leaders were posing for a photo in Speaker Boehner’s office, mugging with pride at their “leadership” in refusing to bend.
By attaching poison-pill provisions to the original House bill and then refusing to take up the stop-gap Senate version, these “leaders” have sealed Americans’ fate. They will head into the New Year expecting somewhere between $900 to $1200 less money in their pockets in 2012. In real life, that’s a lot of money and a huge hit to many families already on the edge. This move will force people to choose among basic necessities: heat or food? Medical care or gas in the car to get to work?
Democrats are correct to loudly blame Republicans for this debacle. If there ever was a time for finger-pointing, this is it. Republicans are gambling that if they sink this bill, voters will take out their frustration at the tax hikes and hard times on the Dems, costing them at the ballot box in November. The scary thing is, they might be right. Even if the Dems win the blame game in the battle over tax hikes, it’s not the same as finding ways to provide relief for hurting people. And the GOP taking short-term hits in the polls should not be mistaken for Dems winning back the hearts and minds of the American people.
A brand new Gallup poll shows that Congressional approval ratings are at 11 percent—the lowest since Gallup started keeping track in 1974. Though the poll was taken prior to the recent antics on the payroll tax, the reasons are still obvious enough. The list of trust violations perpetrated by Congress on the American people in 2011 alone runs long: the budget showdown, the theatrics about the debt ceiling, the fight to renew unemployment insurance, the formation of the so-called supercommittee spawned by their refusal to agree on the debt ceiling… all of these impasses have served to reinforce in the American people a belief that Congresspeople are more interested in winning their next election than mending the fraying national economy—that they are keen on keeping their jobs, but can’t be bothered to do them.
I’m thrilled to see the Democrats calling out the Republicans for holding regular Americans’ needs hostage to their 1 percenter priorities. It’s a good first step, but alone, it’s not sufficient to stop Dems in Congress from being tarred with the same distrust and disgust as their ideological opponents. That’s what the Gallup poll shows, and Republicans are counting on it: in a change election, they don’t think they have to maintain high favorability to win. They simply have to make sure that the Dems can be accused of the same wrongdoing and demand their chance to do better.
Obviously, this would have dire and long-term consequences for the Democratic party, which remains our country’s best hope for genuine legislative reform on everything from jobs to the creeping climate catastrophe. But the stakes are so much higher than the next election. The willingness of Americans to believe in our democracy hinges not only on how economic issues are litigated in Congress but on how much we cab trust the forces litigating.
And to win on that score, Democrats need to do much more than point fingers at the primary offenders. Blame is not change; establishing fault is not progress. Americans need to see Democrats fight unyieldingly, with everything they’ve got, on the critical issues. Wherever possible, executive orders should be given that will relieve the pain of ordinary Americans. When that’s not possible, votes should be extracted from recalcitrant Republicans by whatever means possible, and those who continue to grandstand should be made to pay at home in their districts and be made national examples of all that is wrong with our government. This means naming names, not defaulting to generic labels. It means making people uncomfortable and not playing nice. It means talking to Americans like they are fellow travelers in the fight to restore sanity to our politics and not just voters in the next election. Above all, we need to stop pretending like if we can only get the rules right, the other team will play nice. Far from looking for ways to use the power of government to alleviate pain and build a strong nation, the Republican goal remains undermining the structures that allow government to function, or to “drown it in the bathtub,” in the infamous words of Grover Norquist, the party’s ideological godfather.
Unless there’s a blueprint for finally and fully breaking the Republican strategy of hostage-taking, they will continue to be perceived as the more powerful party, and Dems will be left trumpeting their own weakness to avoid blame. As Americans become more and more desperate for any kind of move out of the current predicament, we risk increasing numbers being drawn to power over principle.
The Occupy movement has made the need to recognize this difference far more acute. The movement has proven that there’s a critical mandate to move the needle; our political system is currently stretched to the breaking point. The goal of the Republicans is to edge it past the breaking point; Democrats have to make people believe that government can be a force for good and is worth bringing back from the brink. That’s a happy ending in the political movie of our lives that we can all get behind.