The good news and bad news about the U.S. Congress

The bad news about the U.S. Congress is that nothing is what they do best. The good is that most important thing they can do in the year ahead is nothing. Now, this is not me channeling my inner Rick Perry. I don’t think that government ought to be irrelevant. Rather, this is a simple ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The bad news about the U.S. Congress is that nothing is what they do best. The good is that most important thing they can do in the year ahead is nothing.

Now, this is not me channeling my inner Rick Perry. I don't think that government ought to be irrelevant. Rather, this is a simple statement of fact. While this Congress has demonstrated itself to be grid-locked, brain-locked, inept, and hopelessly corrupt, it may be more than just the Congress that an ill-informed, apathetic, impulse-driven American electorate deserves. It may actually be the Congress we need.

Because right now the single best way for the U.S. Congress to fix the deficit debacle that it created is to continue to behave in the partisan, ideological, childish, and irresponsible fashion that has become their hallmark. If they do, they will do more to cut the deficit than any number of over-hyped, under-performing committees could even dream of.

The bad news about the U.S. Congress is that nothing is what they do best. The good is that most important thing they can do in the year ahead is nothing.

Now, this is not me channeling my inner Rick Perry. I don’t think that government ought to be irrelevant. Rather, this is a simple statement of fact. While this Congress has demonstrated itself to be grid-locked, brain-locked, inept, and hopelessly corrupt, it may be more than just the Congress that an ill-informed, apathetic, impulse-driven American electorate deserves. It may actually be the Congress we need.

Because right now the single best way for the U.S. Congress to fix the deficit debacle that it created is to continue to behave in the partisan, ideological, childish, and irresponsible fashion that has become their hallmark. If they do, they will do more to cut the deficit than any number of over-hyped, under-performing committees could even dream of.

By remaining frozen as they have been in the headlights of the oncoming 18-wheeler of euro-style economic calamity that is bearing down on America, this group of empty suits may actually not only miraculously avoid becoming historical road-kill, they may actually end up in the Do Nothing Hall of Fame.

How? It’s simple. By failing to address the deficit in the supercommittee, our current Congressional "leadership" has effectively ensured that the single most important item on the legislative and national agenda for 2012 is the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of this year. And the very best way for America to cut its deficit and bring its house back in order after the wanton profligacy of the past decade is to simply let those cuts expire. Which will happen if this Congress plays to type and does the nada it does so well.

There is no single budget factor that can make as big a difference as simply letting these ill-conceived cuts lapse. Projections by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget show that over the next forty years, no single factor will contribute more to our growing deficit. According to the Congressional Budget Office, letting the tax cuts lapse would immediately restore $380 billion dollars a year in revenue and would, therefore, cut the deficit by $3.8 trillion dollars over the next decade, fully 50 percent more than the $2.4 trillion in total deficit reduction that was the goal of the debt limit deal.

Letting them lapse would also not have an unduly burdensome impact on American voters, simply restoring tax rates to where they were a decade ago. Further, as the dismal economic performance of the decade since the cuts were introduced shows, they actually have not had the stimulative effects they were touted as offering.

In fact, if you look at the huge and ever-growing cost to the United States of the cuts, it is very clear that they and not the 9/11 attacks were the most destructive event to hit the country in 2001. Compound them with the costs of our two misguided wars in the Middle East and you have destruction to America’s financial condition, economic prospects, role in the world and national strength that no terror group or competing national power has been able to achieve in America’s modern history.

The question of course, is this Congress up to the task at hand. Will they fight and bicker and then ultimately end up so divided that they do not pass an extension. As that great Washington oracle the Magic 8 Ball used to say, "Signs point to yes."

After all, this Congress — in the midst of a great economic crisis — has not managed to meet its fundamental obligations to pass a budget in 19 months. The Senate has not actually passed a budget in regular order in over 90 months. (The last time a Congress submitting all its spending bills by the mandated October 1 deadline was 1998.) A big job creation bill? No. An up or down vote on Simpson-Bowles? Nope. A major infrastructure initiative? Not. Something to deal with the mortgage crisis that started all this in some meaningful way? Get real. Something minor but promising? Wishful thinking.

That’s why this year could be this Congress’ most productive ever. Because not only could they undo one of the greatest mistakes of America’s recent past by continuing their game of statues, they could add to the victory by letting the automatic cuts that should be triggered by the supercommittee’s failure stand. Of course, these fraudsters have learned well from their sponsors on Wall Street and they never actually believed in that "fail-safe" mechanism anyway, figuring they would undo it later. But what if they can’t even do that. More savings. And for those who argue the U.S. defense department can’t afford $600 billion in cuts…and with all due respect to Leon Panetta who is a great public servant and will be a terrific Secretary of Defense…nonsense. That’s a 10 percent cut which would still leave us spending more on defense than virtually every other country in the world added up…and something like 10 times more than any of our nearest rivals. Somehow I think we can handle it. Somehow I think we must.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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