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Ornstein: Governance Takes Back Seat to Bickering

Congress should be ashamed that its list of irresponsible acts is so long

This has not been a good month for the fabric of governance. First we have the ridiculous demands from a majority of Senate Republicans for information about finances of private groups that former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel has been affiliated with, including transcripts or notes from all speeches he has given since he left the Senate, even when off-the-record and even when he had no prepared speech.

The request for finances, namely about foreign money given to corporations or nonprofits such as the Atlantic Council, is a simple smear, innuendo that Hagel may be wrongly connected to foreign interests or governments. It reminds me of the low tactics used years ago by Democrats to bring down John Tower when he was nominated for secretary of Defense.

Of course, at another level, the current GOP play is just an effort to stall the Hagel nomination, in hopes he or the president will give up. And South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s vow to put holds on both the Hagel and John O. Brennan nominations makes it clear that it will take a herculean effort on the part of Majority Leader Harry Reid to get the confirmations to a vote before the Presidents Day recess.

Think about it: We have a sequester looming, one that could wreak havoc at the Pentagon; a coming series of budget confrontations that create real challenges in the management of the Defense Department; and an ongoing war.

And a little group of willful men and women, including those who have been the loudest critics of the sequester, are keeping the next head of the department from getting into office and beginning the hard job of managing the turbulence ahead.

That’s only the first on a list of irresponsible acts. If National Review is accurate, the unanimous Senate Republican response to deal with our debt problems and immediate budget crises is a constitutional amendment to balance the budget with a cap on spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product and supermajorities required to raise revenues or the debt ceiling.

If I were al-Qaida and looking to destroy America from within, I would love to see this amendment added to the Constitution.

Given our demographics and the GOP insistence on maintaining and increasing defense spending, this amendment would require huge cuts in Medicare, Social Security, homeland security, air traffic security, food safety, medical research, all basic research, infrastructure repair (including sewers, water sources, highways and bridges), child nutrition and everything else.

It would guarantee that in an economic downturn, the fiscal drag from states would be amplified, not countered, at the federal level. And it would guarantee regular breaches in the full faith and credit of the United States, debasing our currency and making us a second-rate power.

I acknowledge that it is a ploy, an attempt to pander to the public about a party’s desire to cut the debt and to gain a little traction against the White House. But in so pandering, this amendment plays to the worst instincts and reinforces for way too many people that it is simple to balance the budget.

Smart and sensible Senate Republicans such as Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, Lisa Murkowski and many more apparently endorse this reckless idea, according to National Review.

Please tell me it isn’t so. If it is, ask yourselves how this is going to contribute to finding the type of bipartisan resolution of our fiscal problems in a way that will encourage economic growth now instead of the austerity that has damaged Britain and the rest of Europe. How will it actually result in a long-term path to reduce our debt to more manageable levels?

Now a third gripe. We can and should have a vigorous debate about the size and scope of the federal government and about which programs should be expanded, which maintained, which reduced and which eliminated. But surely, the government we do have should be run efficiently and effectively for the people of the United States.

Let’s take one example: cybersecurity. We know the threats from China and elsewhere are real and immediate. We need top talent in government agencies to help counter them because we know the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, terror groups and others are employing top talent to damage us.

Please tell me how continued disparagement of federal employees — and continued and expanded pay freezes — will help us attract and retain top talent. Tell me how a sequester will help the many security-related agencies and other entities operate to focus on the threats.

And please tell me how the rolling confrontations — from the debt limit to the current year’s appropriations to next year’s spending, where managers in these agencies cannot tell from day to day, much less year to year, what their budgets will be — is helping the cause of better government. How can anyone plan under these conditions?

For far too many lawmakers, governance — basic governance to protect the nation and its people, which is the fundamental fiduciary responsibility for our elected officials — has taken a back seat to politics, mollifying ideologues, and fitting in with tribal norms. Is this really what you came to Congress to accomplish? For shame.

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

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