The best news to come out of Capitol Hill last week was largely buried in the back pages. It was the statements made by senior Republicans that if President Barack Obama wins reelection in November, they will retreat in their position on raising taxes on high-earners.
Finally, a sign of compromise of some sort. It's hardly a guarantee that Congress will retreat from the looming "fiscal cliff" of massive tax increases and spending cuts that could easily plunge the nation back into an economic recession early next year, but considering how ridiculous and self-destructive the political standoff in Washington has become, it's something.
The concession looms large particularly given how little the 112th Congress has accomplished this term. As others have noted, these representatives have made Harry Truman's "do-nothing" Congress of 1948 look like over-achievers by comparison, having passed four times as much legislation as the current edition.
And that isn't even a fair comparison. Has there ever been a time when so much important legislation was left behind as Congress left for recess prior to an election? Lawmakers even wrapped up their business early — the House's Friday adjournment marking the earliest election-year recess since 1960. These must be the lazy, entitled victims on the government dole that Mitt Romney was talking about.
Mr. Romney and his supporters like to say the nation's economy has been stalled by uncertainty in Washington, and to some extent, that's likely true. How can businesses plan for the future and make hiring or expansion plans when Congress refuses to pass important long-term measures such as the Farm Bill (one of the more vital pieces of legislation left on the House docket last week), or the energy, jobs, immigration, or transportation bills before it?
Of course, when such criticism is raised, House Republicans counter that they passed numerous bills that simply languished in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But that ignores the fact that much of what was passed by the Republicans was done as pure political theater — like reducing Pentagon cuts required by sequestration without a compromise over domestic cuts or taxes — that never stood a chance in the other chamber.
Take, for instance, the recent dust-up over what should have been a no-brainer: offering green cards to foreign students who come to this country to obtain advanced degrees in science, engineering and math. Under current rules, U.S. universities train these talented scientists, who frequently end up leaving the country to take top posts at foreign companies because visas aren't available. But Republicans insisted that instead of offering more visas to allow these valued students to stay here, the U.S. should re-purpose those offered by the current diversity lottery.
Thus, the GOP could offer a bill that wasn't going to pass but could potentially help them with minority voters. They scored political points but did nothing, which has been par for the course this term.
Democrats offered their share of empty gestures in the final days before the election recess, too — such as Friday's protest of adjournment. House Democrats stood on the Capitol steps to insist that both sides should stay in town until more job-creating business got done. That likely induced a collective yawn from the other side of the aisle.
To describe Washington as gridlocked right now is an insult to traffic jams. It is now officially a kind of gridlock that seems to want to perpetuate itself. Small wonder that polls show the 112th Congress has set another kind of record — more Americans disapprove of its members' job performance than any previous Congress.
That leaves the November election as the best and perhaps only chance Americans have of getting action out of Washington. When Congress returns in mid-November, it will have only a matter of weeks to address the half-trillion in spending cuts and automatic tax increases that are now set to go in effect Jan. 2.
If GOP lawmakers at least recognize that an Obama victory in six weeks will require them to abandon their untenable position on taxes, that's a good first step, particularly given the incumbent's increasingly strong position in the swing states. Obviously, that retreat won't solve the problem, but it means that a bipartisan agreement over taxes and spending is not out of the question. And with that possible, perhaps other important business can get done as well.