Saving Congress From Itself
Published: July 29th, 2011
By: Steven and Cokie Roberts

Saving Congress from itself

Rancor and recrimination are suffocating Washington like a summer heat wave, but the nasty tone of the debate obscures an important point of agreement. Leaders in both parties now agree that Congress is a failure. It cannot, they concede, make the painful decisions necessary to defuse the country’s exploding budget deficits.

In exchange for a vote to increase the government’s borrowing authority, Republicans have demanded massive cuts in federal spending. House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama tried, and failed, to negotiate a “grand bargain” that would both reduce benefits and raise revenues. Boehner and the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid, then advanced competing – and far more modest –deficit reduction plans that would do little to solve the long-term problem.

But look closely. Both Boehner and Reid have proposed some form of congressional commission empowered to make the wrenching decisions that the country needs but that lawmakers cannot, or will not, make on their own. Both leaders agree that their colleagues should be forced to vote, up or down, on the commission’s recommendations, without filibusters or other dilatory tactics.

This is a sad day. The U.S. Congress is the greatest legislative body ever devised. But it has lost the capacity to act, even in the face of a profound threat to the national interest.

As Obama noted in his nationally televised address, “America ... has always been a grand experiment in compromise.” But that experiment is expiring. In today’s Washington, “compromise has become a dirty word,” as the president put it. Anyone, in either party, who tries to be conciliatory is denounced as a traitor by hardliners who sound more like Sunnis and Shiites than Democrats and Republicans.

Without compromise, Congress collapses. A commission is a lousy idea, but it’s a lot better than nothing, and nothing is what Congress seems prepared to produce on its own.

Of course, this is hardly a new concept, and many commissions don’t work. The Bowles-Simpson panel, for example, appointed by President Obama last year, produced a far-reaching proposal with almost $4 trillion in deficit-reduction measures. But it evoked a tepid response in many quarters and never came to a vote.

There is another model, however, that did work – the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, or BRAC. It grew out of the same understanding that Boehner and Reid now reflect: Some decisions are too politically risky for Congress to handle.

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