The country has rightly focused on the presidential election, but our attention here turns to Congress, the upcoming financial calamity — and a bit of advice from George Washington.
For all the partisan money and effort, Congress remains divided, with a Republican House and Democratic Senate. There remains an excellent chance that bicameral dysfunction will continue, unless elected leaders demand changes of themselves, supported by pleas from constituents.
To voters: The election may be over, but keep watch. Do not fall for excuses when one party defends inaction by accusing the other party of obstruction. To newly elected independent Sen. Angus King and re-elected incumbents Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, congratulations. Now, along with incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, you must do everything in your power to return civility and problem-solving methods to Congress. The country’s economy is at stake.
Congressional leaders face economic problems that can only be solved by finding ways to compromise. It’s possible that the “lame-duck” Congress in November and December will simply push back a decision on how to prevent the “fiscal cliff” — when nearly $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts will take effect. If a decision is delayed, newly elected and incumbent leaders in the next full session must overcome what led to the fiscal cliff and continues to plague Congress: inability to focus on long-term budget solutions.
The fiscal cliff was created in the first place to force Congress to act on reducing the deficit. During debate about the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, the U.S. House and the White House decided that, since they couldn’t agree on a deficit-reducing plan, a super committee would do the work instead. If the committee failed to devise a long-range plan, automatic cuts to defense and domestic spending, called “sequestration,” would occur at the beginning of 2013.
The committee failed. Congress did nothing. And, even though Democrats and Republicans agree that the cuts can’t happen, they appear to have no plan to prevent them. A long-term plan that includes spending cuts and tax increases is essential if the country wants to both seriously reduce the deficit and prevent the type of austerity that could tip the economy back into a recession.
There are also several specific conditions preventing legislators from working together:
* Grover Norquist’s pledge to not raise taxes. A lobbyist and president of the group Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist has gotten 279 members of Congress to sign the pledge. Any such all-or-nothing agreement limits legislators in budget discussions.
* The filibuster. Instead of being used to show dissent, it is too often used to obstruct legislation. Some sort of filibuster reform is prudent, to allow the majority party to lead in the Senate.
* Nondisclosure of political contributors. The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t enforce its own rules on nonprofit 501(c)4 organizations to keep them from hiding their political donors. Disclosure is key to holding politicians accountable.
Making any substantial improvements to the political landscape or future budget deals will require cooperation. As voters across the country look out on a new — but familiar — political future, they should encourage their leaders to remember the concepts of civility that shaped America’s first president.
When he was a boy, George Washington copied by hand the 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” originally compiled by Jesuit instructors in the 1500s. The rules hold true today, and we include three here, as modernized by National Public Radio. Whether politicians are debating future economic, health care, education or energy policies, they would be wise to keep them in mind:
* Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.
* Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
* Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.