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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Globe Essay

It's democracy, not dysfunction Add to ...

After a week of snow hell that has left the city a dysfunctional mess, it is tempting to see a parallel between the gridlock on Washington's unplowed streets and the historic logjam on Capitol Hill.

The United States is mired in debt and deficits as far as even a bionic eye could see, and there is almost zero chance the 111th Congress will do anything about it. The health-care system is a voracious blob that consumes 17 per cent of the nation's economy, yet leaves almost 50 million people uninsured and millions more without adequate coverage. And still, meaningful health-care reform appears about as likely as reversing the aging process. Bridling the bankers should be a no-brainer (and a just reward) after the ravages Wall Street has inflicted on Main Street, but for all their tough talk, legislators still can't seem to bite the greasy hand that funds their campaigns.

Is this the worst Congress ever?

If you tend towards the affirmative, it's probably just as likely that you place most of the blame on the Republicans. The GOP minority in the Senate has taken obstructionism to new heights, putting this Congress on track to shatter the record for the number of filibusters used in a single two-year cycle. Raw partisanship has come to so dominate the legislative process that political analysts are suddenly postulating that the United States has become a de facto parliamentary system stuck in a permanent impasse.

Now there's a scary thought. If this and future Congresses can't get their act together, America's relative decline is certain to accelerate and it won't just be the United States that pays the price. The entire world economy will be destabilized if it loses the United States as its rudder. The entire planet could boil over without U.S. leadership, although that just became a heck of lot less likely with subzero weather in the Carolinas leaving the GOP's climate-change deniers in a gloating mood.

When the current batch of Republican congressmen and senators arrived on Capitol Hill a little more than a year ago, they adopted an obstructionist strategy because they had nothing to lose. The party ranks had been so decimated after the 2006 and 2008 elections, and the Democratic majorities in both chambers so hell-bent on reversing the legacy of George W. Bush, becoming the Party of No was merely a recognition of the GOP's inability to actually affect legislative outcomes.

Indeed, Republicans aren't to blame for this Congress's failure to enact health-care reform and climate-change legislation, overhaul the financial regulatory apparatus or address the deficit. Democrats are so divided on these issues that they have done a good job sabotaging President Barack Obama's agenda all by themselves.

Rounding up the 60 Senate votes needed to override a Republican filibuster and get a health-care bill passed in December involved such unsightly sausage-making - such as bribing conservative Democratic senators with money for their states and pet causes - that a disgusted American public turned on the initiative. As a result, proceeding with a final House-Senate bill even if they had the votes in Congress would have been political hara-kiri. Democrats would have received an even more severe rebuke in November's midterm elections than the upbraiding they're already expected to endure.

When electors in Massachusetts sent the 41st Republican senator to Washington in last month's special election, they empowered the GOP beyond its wildest dreams. With Mr. Obama posting the lowest year-one approval rating of any modern president - an ominous 46 per cent according to a New York Times/CBS poll out yesterday - the Republicans now have everything to gain by being obstructionist.


Is that so bad? Most Americans (and even more non-Americans) seem to think so. Yesterday's poll showed that American voters yearn for bipartisan compromises in Congress, credit Mr. Obama for trying to build them and condemn the Republicans for putting a stick in the President's spokes. In fact, Mr. Obama's approval rating makes him look like Mother Teresa compared with the lawmakers. A record three-quarters of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is acting.

Yet the petty partisanship of some Republicans, who have resorted to filibustering anything that moves, should not obscure the fact that GOP attempts to block key planks of Mr. Obama's agenda are entirely consistent the desire of a majority of Americans for smaller government and some sober second thought on health-care reform, also borne out in the NYT/CBS survey. Those attitudes have hardened since Mr. Obama's election. If anything, the American public is telling the Republicans: "You go, GOP!"

Or, as the congressional scholar Norman Ornstein puts it: "We send people to Washington to solve problems but we don't want people whose business it is to solve problems doing it."

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