The congressional follies, summer 2013 edition

Robert Ehrlich on the debt ceiling, tax reform, IRS scandal and political correctness

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Observations and comment from Washington, D.C. and beyond:

•Observation: The No. 1 question I'm asked at public events is why Congress is so dysfunctional.

One need look no further than the latest [Charlie] Cook Political Report to understand why. The guru of Washington prognosticators rates only 66 midterm House races as "competitive." This out of 435 House seats. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that ideological deadlock (not always a negative) describes the present Congress.

State legislatures are the primary culprit. These ravenous, partisan bodies are carving out increasing numbers of safe seats every 10 years. More safe seats equates to more ideological voting and less compromise.

Rapidly changing demographics play a part, too. For example, the drawing of majority African-American seats increases the size and political clout of the Congressional Black Caucus. But such line drawing also means fewer white Democratic voters (and fewer moderate/conservative congressional Democrats) from the South and West — what used to be a significant group of "Blue Dog" Democrats. You might remember them: Their independent status helped negotiate balanced-budget deals with two Republican presidents. Today, their reduced presence makes it less likely that heavy-lifting bills (immigration, tax reform) can get negotiated and passed.

•Observation: The second most asked question concerns why the parties are unable to begin a Reagan-esque tax reform effort if both are seemingly committed to the concept.

These folks point to the bipartisan "listening tour" House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp and Senate Financial Committee Chairman Max Baucus are conducting in order to generate interest in a more sensible tax code.

But the respective parties have vastly different goals. Democrats wish to eliminate tax preferences in order to generate additional revenue for domestic programs and federal entitlements. For these members, tax reform is a path toward increased revenue, without the public pain associated with a renewed tax debate.

Conversely, Republicans desire a slimmer code in order to generate less revenue. For these members, tax reform means tax cuts and less fuel for the federal spending machine.

FYI: Any guarded optimism about a mega-agreement was crushed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's recent statement that tax reform "can't be revenue neutral. … There has to be significant new revenue."

Betcha Republicans never thought they would long for the days of Tip O'Neill.

•Observation: The familiar but dramatic theater surrounding this fall's vote to raise the federal debt limit has begun.

The country's borrowing limit is (again) set to expire late this fall. And the usual political posturing has begun anew.

House Republicans believe this is the time and place to make a budget stand. This despite precious few political victories over this issue in the past. Nevertheless, the House leadership knows it is presented with a dearth of opportunities to limit the size and scope of government during the Obama era. A dollar-for-dollar trade of increased debt and spending cuts is its stated goal.

Senate Republicans are of a more accommodating mode. They fear adverse public reaction to repeated GOP targeting of the debt ceiling. Placing the country's credit-worthiness at risk is not the image they wish to put forward with control of the Senate up for grabs in 2014.

Democrats are predictably happy to lift the debt ceiling without any corresponding spending cuts. Such is the stated position of the president, Majority Leader Reid and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

•Observation: The revelation that "enhanced review" (what could be purposeful stonewalling) reached to the office of the chief counsel within the IRS will keep the scandal alive into the fall.

Recall that the agency's lead lawyer is one of only two Obama appointees within the IRS. Earlier administration explanations for heightened scrutiny of conservative groups (it was "rogue" line personnel in Cincinnati; nobody at IRS headquarters in Washington knew of the shenanigans; the IRS was too poorly supervised to pull off such a stunt) are now proven to be incorrect. All of which reminds one of the administration's early explanations for the terror assault on our Benghazi consulate (recall that infamous anti-Islam video) until the facts finally emerged.

•Observation: There is no end to the progressive lunacy of The New York Times.

The sensitivity police at "America's Newspaper of Record" discerned "racial implications" in the (white) Michigan governor's decision to send in an emergency manager to assist majority-black Detroit in its mission to navigate its bankruptcy. Only one problem with the indictment: The new manager is African-American. Which would tend to negate the racial charge, except when it comes to PC World. And yes, the whole racial thing does bring to mind charges of insensitivity when a Republican governor (yours truly) attempted to fix the most dysfunctional schools within the Baltimore school system. Which event was followed by the usual circling of the wagons and hand-wringing about not enough money (there is never enough money). That charge failed for lack of substance: The kids sentenced to those failing schools (and being denied their constitutional rights) were predominantly African-American and Hispanic.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is

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County executive in contempt of court? [Poll]

Should a judge find Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz in contempt of court for refusing to pay more than $1 million legally owed to several hundred police retirees even though he's not a party in the case?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Not sure