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Capitol Hill in Washington. International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde says the fiscal cliff is one of the greatest threats to the global economy. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
Capitol Hill in Washington. International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde says the fiscal cliff is one of the greatest threats to the global economy. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

U.S. POLITICS

Polarized U.S. Congress falls off the credibility cliff Add to ...

As Washington insiders raced to designate the winners and losers in a “fiscal cliff” deal winding its tortuous way through Congress, a very different assessment of the political players was being made in the diners of the nation.

They are all losers.

Voter disgust with a Congress that had already earned the distinction of being the least productive in decades was outdone only by bewilderment about the politicians’ inability to deal with the country’s problems, fiscal or otherwise, like regular adults.

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“Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress,” West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin mused as the White House and congressional leaders scrambled to avert more than $500-billion (U.S.) in recession-inducing tax increases and spending cuts that were set to kick in on Jan. 1.

“It should be embarrassing to all of us that it took until the last hours of the last day of the year to address an issue we should have dealt with months ago,” said Arizona Republican Senator John McCain.

Such self-flagellation cannot make up for the fact that the “deal” that passed the Senate in the early hours of New Year’s Day, and passed the House of Representatives late Tuesday night, is a sorry excuse of a solution to a problem that requires bigger answers.

Provided a fiscal cliff bill actually makes it through Congress, it will merely buy the politicians a couple more months to procrastinate about the country’s fiscal time bomb.

What’s more, the same nerve-racking uncertainty and brinksmanship will be repeated all over again in February or March when President Barack Obama formally asks Congress to raise the government’s $16.4-trillion debt ceiling.

The best-case scenario may be another short-term bill that tides the U.S. Treasury over until the next quick fix. Just don’t expect Congress to pass it a second before it has to.

Mr. Obama and the Republican House Speaker John Boehner keep saying they want to reach a “grand bargain” that fixes the long-term fiscal mess for at least a decade. But after two miserable failures, no one is really expecting them to be third time lucky.

Republicans rightly get most of the blame for this gridlock. But Mr. Obama is also complicit in this dysfunction. He has shown disdain for the sausage-making process and tried to float above it. But the most effective presidents have been up to their elbows in it, knowing when to flatter or bribe opposition members of Congress to get bills passed.

Curiously, Mr. Obama sought to rub House Republican faces in the fiscal-cliff deal that Vice-President Joe Biden and GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiated on Monday.

“For the first time in 20 years, Congress will have acted on a bipartisan basis to vote for significant new revenues,” the White House said in a “fact sheet” touting the tax increases on the wealthy Mr. Obama snagged as part of the deal.

The administration might have waited until the House had actually passed the deal before pointing that out. Doing so beforehand made it harder for many House Republicans to vote for it. That led to hours of additional uncertainty on Tuesday as Republicans considered amending the deal, a development that could have led to its demise. They wisely dropped that idea, knowing they were risking a bloody reaction on financial markets on Wednesday.

Is this any way to run a country, much less the world’s most important one?

For a long time, Americans – and Canadians for that matter – viewed the free agency in Congress as an almost admirable quirk of a political system forged out of a revolutionary mentality and deep distrust of government. But if the founders wanted to make legislating hard, they did not likely intend for it to be self-destructive.

Yet, that is what it has become. To wit, the Senate Chaplain’s opening prayer on Sunday, asking God to “save us from self-inflicted wounds.”

A new Congress takes over on Thursday. But nothing will change. A new round of extreme gerrymandering after the 2010 census ensured that the politicians elected last fall will worry more about losing a primary challenge, from the right or left, than their next general election.

The result will be even greater polarization in Congress and an endless series of unproductive confrontations. Actual governing will continue to take a back seat to drawing ideological lines in the sand. And the consequences will only grow more dire.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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