In what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid described as "a win for everyone," Congress appears poised to accept a compromise on disaster relief funding that will avoid a threatened government shutdown at the end of this week. Assuming all goes according to plan, the government should have spending plans to carry it through Nov. 18. Crisis averted. Again. Until next time.
Are we supposed to be grateful for this? Elated? Relieved? Congressional leaders must hope that their repeated hostage-taking of the American public has given us a massive case of Stockholm syndrome, because there is no way short of a mass identification with our captors in Washington for us to believe that anyone on Capitol Hill is really acting in our best interests.
We could attempt to figure out who is more right or more wrong in the latest dispute over whether the government should offset added disaster relief funding with cuts elsewhere, but the actual amount of money at stake was so trivial as to render the exercise pointless. All this debate proved was that at a time when the nation is careening toward an even deeper economic crisis, Congress is intent on adding to the panic. No wonder companies aren't hiring and consumers aren't spending when even the most minuscule disagreement in Washington leads to the threat of a government shutdown. Under these conditions, how are we supposed to have any confidence that we won't be right back in the same situation on Nov. 18, or that the deficit-cutting "super committee" is going to come up with a viable plan to avoid draconian cuts in January?
To be fair, Democrats and President Barack Obama have shown a greater inclination to compromise than Republicans. They, and in particular the president, have been willing to accept cuts to entitlements and domestic programs as part of a plan to boost the economy with deficit spending now and reduce the deficit in the long term. Republicans, captive to the absolutists in their tea party wing, have been unwilling to budge on tax increases and have been blind to the fact that immediate government spending cuts are only worsening unemployment. And when the time has come to make a deal to avert a government shutdown or default on the debt, it has generally been on the Republicans' terms.
But even President Obama has stayed locked into the same axis of debate over spending and taxes that has defined the relationship between Democrats and Republicans for decades. Times have changed. The crisis we face now is different from the ones in 1980, 1992 or even 2007. There is no sweet spot of marginal tax rates or government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product that is going to magically revive American manufacturing, restore our schools to global preeminence or confront the challenge posed by China and other rising economies. The bickering in Washington is not just destructive but is fundamentally irrelevant.
We need a different approach, and there are plenty of ideas from across the political spectrum to choose from. We could scrap our bloated, loophole-ridden tax code in favor of one that is simpler and fairer to those without pricey lobbyists. We could create an immigration system that recognizes our need to attract and retain the world's best talent. We could make new investments in education and worker training to maintain our economic competitiveness. We could reform our entitlement programs so that we maintain a social safety net without bankrupting the country.
But nothing of that magnitude is possible without a change in the way business is done in Washington. President Obama promised that in 2008, but it hasn't happened, and that's only partially because of Republicans' determination to defeat him at all costs. The 2012 election doesn't provide much reason for hope either. The Republican candidates don't offer anything more than a souped-up version of Reagan-era GOP orthodoxy, and although Mr. Obama has occasionally flirted with a break from the party line, he has recently pivoted toward his base and given up for the moment any talk of a grand compromise on spending and taxes.
Rather than offering voters anything new, Republicans and Democrats seem locked into a belief that with just a few more tactical victories, they can convince the half of the country that disagrees with them to go along with the same agenda they have been rejecting for years. It has always seemed ridiculous to suggest that a meaningful third party could emerge to break the deadlock in Washington. But with the prospect of more pointless showdowns like the one we witnessed this week, it might not seem so fanciful for long.