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On Schedules and the Pity of the Deficit Panel

First, a few words on the untimely death of former Rep. Howard Wolpe, who served in the House for 14 years through 1992.

He was a wonderful man, an intellectual with a passion for justice, who was a role model for his colleagues in many ways.

He focused much of his career on Africa, not an issue that will win a lot of support from constituents but important for the American national interest as well as for its larger human component. Wolpe worked tirelessly to find ways to accelerate the demise of apartheid in South Africa, but also looked to stop killing in other parts of the continent, to relieve poverty and alleviate disease, and to create vibrant economies. He continued his efforts in different ways after leaving the Hill.

Congress needs Members who dig in and develop expertise across the range of issues, and keep pursuing them even if they are not political winners. That is how good public policy gets made and issues that matter neither fade nor fester to reemerge as crises.

Wolpe was a role model in another way — his relentless drive for justice was accompanied by an almost courtly manner, a civility in discourse that is increasingly hard to find.

* * * * *

Now on to a second matter, the Congressional schedule. When Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) visited the American Enterprise Institute before the 2010 elections, at a point when he seemed on a clear path to becoming Speaker, he spoke not about the big campaign issues but about how he would run the House, itself a refreshing approach.

I left his talk cautiously hopeful that Boehner really would move to streamline some elements of the process, restore a major part of the regular order and work tirelessly to promote real debate and deliberation. He said it and he meant it, even if some of his ideas — for example, to have more and more open rules, including on appropriations bills, while breaking the dozen appropriations into many smaller pieces — did not add up in terms of the time they would take.

And it didn’t take a cynic to know that his determination to avoid the huge, catch-all omnibus bills brought up under deeply restrictive rules would last until he needed to pass something that required an omnibus take-it-or-leave it approach.

When Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) promised to reform the Congressional schedule and moved to cut out the commemoratives, which are nice symbols but took up precious floor time, it was a hopeful set of signs as well.

Now look what we have come to.

The item for the floor on Tuesday: H.Con.Res. 13, reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States and supporting and encouraging the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools and other government institutions.

With the real unemployment rate north of 15 percent, a European economic crisis that could lead us into a double-dip recession or worse, a driving need to stimulate economic growth now while finding credible ways to solve our long-term debt problem and with hundreds of other real problems facing the country and the world, this is the House agenda? I guess the real goal here is to drive Congressional approval down to 3 percent from its current 9 percent.

If Congress were ready to engage in serious debate, if not action, on these vital problems, I would not get exorcised over a harmless symbolic move, if an unnecessary and gratuitous one. But the schedule Cantor has set out for next year, following on this year’s — with fewer days in session than any previous Congress in memory, with an increasing disregard for the schedule in the other body (a disregard shared by the Senate) — shows that the idea of debate and deliberation has been thrown out the window.

Along with it goes any hope that Members of Congress will spend time together, get to work together face to face and maybe even find common ground. The best word I can find for Tuesday’s issue and the broader approach to governing is frivolous.

* * * * *

I cannot leave today’s column without a few more words on the super committee.

Many commentators (including Roll Call’s Stan Collender) have noted that if it fails, the sky will not fall, at least not immediately. The sequesters that would be triggered do not take effect until 2013, after all.

Here is the starker reality. Failure to reach a broad agreement won’t trigger sequesters even in 2013. The history of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings is that threats to wreak mayhem and havoc unless Congress does the tough budget things are idle threats; when faced with mayhem, Congress finds a way out.

It won’t take long, after the wreckage on Nov. 23, for savvy analysts to realize that — meaning after all the economic turmoil and anger at Washington, we will not achieve even a halfway or quarter-way measure to resolve our long-term debt problem. The result will be further downgrades, at minimum, when it is clear the system is so dysfunctional that an unprecedented opportunity, via a panel that can write a major bill to solve huge problems and get automatic, expedited, up-or-down votes in both chambers, is thwarted by short-sighted partisans.

Surely, the likes of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) can see that working with the likes of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Co-Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — who have opened the door with promises to take on the entitlement challenge — is doable and urgently needed.

Surely, they and their colleagues recognize that this is a defining moment for their careers (not to mention how their obituaries that will be read by their children will be written).

But of course I write the word “surely” even as I am anything but sure that, even with the urgent need and incredible opportunity, these lawmakers can overcome the party imperatives and ideological litmus tests.

I will repeat what I wrote some weeks ago to these 12: Why are you doing public service? Why are you here? If it is not to solve big problems but to be good partisan soldiers, maybe you should find something else to do with your lives.

Norman Ornstein is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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