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Driving into a ditch to avoid a cliff

by Jim Longworth

The ink was barely dry on last week’s cliff-avoiding deal, when one of its participants (Sen. Michael Crapo of Idaho) appeared in court to cop to DWI charges. It seemed fitting somehow. After all, New Year’s Eve is that special night when some people drink too much, get behind the wheel and end up causing an accident. That, in a nutshell, metaphorically describes Congress and its actions on Dec. 31. Drunk on power and unwilling to listen to reason, Congress drove us into a ditch, then left the scene of the accident. And, like so many drunk drivers, they’ll assess the damage later, after they’ve sobered up.

Yes, Congress kept us from going over the dreaded fiscal cliff, but their lastminute reprieve was only temporary.

Spending cuts will only be deferred for 60 days, at which time our elected officials in Washington must return to the scene of their “crime” and craft a more permanent agreement to deal with our fragile economy. Meanwhile, the reprieve was fraught with irony.

For example, the Bush-era tax cuts will remain in effect, but the 2011 cut in payroll tax has expired, so our paychecks will still shrink. Medicare payments to our doctors will stay at the same rate, but insurance companies will continue to raise our premiums. And, unemployment benefits will be extended, but American CEOs will still be rewarded for taking our jobs overseas.

Let’s be clear about something. The New Year’s Eve “accident” shouldn’t have happened. While waiting to see if a deal would be reached, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer spoke the most salient words of the evening. Said Blitzer, “They’ve had a year to take care of this.” But what B:itzer didn’t say is that every year is the same for Congress. They spend most of their time raising money to get reelected, then they take vacations, then it’s time to recess so they can campaign. In between, they pass legislation. But by all accounts nearly 30 percent of all bills passed are frivolous — like voting on what to name a federal building, setting aside a day to honor Corvettes, establishing a National Watermelon Month and designating a day to honor funeral directors.

Democrats and Republicans are both to blame for this gridlock, but it is gridlock by design. That’s because each Republican congressman knows he can blame our nation’s problems on the Democrats, and vice versa. In that regard, manufactured gridlock becomes a rally cry for the incumbent’s constituents, which (most of the time) results in his re-election, and another term in which nothing gets done.

Of the two parties, however, the majority of blame for our fiscal crisis must lie with Republicans. First of all, Clinton left us with a balanced budget and a manageable debt. But our economy was nearly destroyed by eight years of deficit spending under George W. Bush, which, along with no oversight of Wall Street, set the stage for the Great Recession of 2009. Second, the GOP loves to stonewall and filibuster. And third, GOP lawmakers take particular pride in obstructionism. According to a report in DailyKos.com, Senate Republicans last year alone blocked 375 bills which had been passed by the House. Those bills dealt with such matters as elder abuse, child protection, restrictions on radioactive imports and waterquality regulations. So it should come as no surprise that Congress didn’t care about the fiscal cliff. They merely passed a stop gap spending measure in mid September so that they could go back home to campaign, and the electorate wouldn’t panic when it came time to vote.

This entire mess is yet another argument for imposing term limits on Congress. Its members don’t need to be in office for more than six years. They don’t deserve health insurance for onethird of the price the rest of us pay. They don’t deserve obscenely high pensions. And, they don’t deserve a pass from voters for screwing up our economy. Longevity in Washington translates into power, and power corrupts. But power is also intoxicating. So why do we keep giving these guys the keys to our car? Let’s charge them all with DWI — Driving While Incumbent, and send them back home to stay.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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