The Public’s Pox on Washington Deepens

Posted September 30, 2013 at 6:37pm

For those looking for an agreement that would genuinely “give the American people what they want,” it was painfully easy to turn off the news and tuck in early Monday night.

Republicans and Democrats with equal conviction proclaim their prescription for ending the budget impasse is to do what the public wants. But nothing under discussion during the final frenetic hours of fiscal 2013 would have delivered what the voters say they are looking for as much as anything else: a federal government that projects competence, functions more with seriousness of purpose than with melodrama, and advances passionate but civil debates about policy to a timely conclusion with principles maintained but compromise rewarded.

Instead, the best the nation could hope for was the outside chance that an immediate partial government shutdown would be replaced by the threat of a partial government shutdown in a matter of days. The most optimistic short-term expectation for the functioning of American democracy, in other words, was that it would be able to ward off calamity for a little while longer. As has been the case so many times in the recent past, there was no suspense about which party would see its vision of government come out decisively on top. Nor was there a question about whether Congress or the president would get the upper hand in their power tussle.

The only mystery was how the sentence involving the most overused idiom about policy procrastination — kicking the can down the road — would be finished. Would that hollow cylinder be propelled forward for a few days, a few weeks or not at all just yet?

Intuitively, there’s no reason to believe this is what the electorate wants. Based on several recent polls, there’s ample reason to believe that a broad ideological cross section of the country doesn’t have much interest at all in this approach.

CBS pollsters released a survey Sept. 15 that asked over the time period of Sept. 19-23 if it should be “acceptable for a president or members of Congress to threaten a government shutdown during their budget negotiations in order to achieve their goals.” Only 16 percent said “yes,” while 80 percent said “no.” The group most willing to countenance the strategy was self-identified Republicans — at 22 percent.

In the most recent CNN poll, taken last weekend and released Monday, a shutdown of only a few days was labeled “a bad thing for the country” by 68 percent, including 53 percent of Republicans.

Both surveys also revealed solid interest in Congress moving beyond the current battlefield. While 51 percent in the CBS poll voiced disapproval for the 2010 health care law, 56 percent said they want Congress to “make it work as well as possible,” only 38 percent endorsed the House GOP defunding strategy and 3 in 5 respondents said the fate of the health care law should be decided separately from discussions about the budget or the debt ceiling. In the more recent CNN survey, 60 percent (including most swing-vote independents, although only 38 percent of Republicans) said it was more important for Congress to avoid a shutdown than to prevent implementation of Obamacare.

One finding in the CNN poll did offer evidence to bolster the notion that President Barack Obama is already shouldering much less of the blame than the congressional wing of the GOP for the current state of affairs. Only 25 percent said Republicans “have acted mostly like responsible adults” in this fall’s budget debate, while 68 percent found their behavior “mostly like spoiled children.”  By contrast, the narrowest possible plurality, 49 percent to 47 percent, said Obama was more the grown-up in the room than the petulant child.

Those puerile percentages echo the president’s lowest-since-his-re-election approval rating and lowest-in-modern-times congressional approval rating. The easiest way to plump those up would be for the two sides to get an agreement of almost any description this month that gives definition to both the budget and debt ceiling mysteries for at least the remainder of fiscal 2014.

Even if both the mainstream Democrats backing Obama and the conservatives steering the House GOP capitulate in ways that would infuriate their base voters — and in ways they have unilaterally ruled out time and again — their national approval ratings would almost surely go up heading into the midterm campaign, just because the country would be ready to reward them all for calling a sufficiently lengthy truce.

The legislated policy postponements of the past three years — on the Bush-era tax cuts, the debt limit, the farm bill, aviation programs, road construction, the payroll tax and student loan rates, to name only the most prominent — have done nothing to boost the Capitol’s standing in the public eye. But, blame game aside, all the big players retained their jobs the last time the annual appropriations process concluded on time: 17 Septembers ago, when regular order was a byproduct of the exhaustion from the shutdown-spawning spending showdown of the previous winter.

That’s not going to happen anytime soon, as the president conceded during a late afternoon turn in the bully pulpit of the White House press room. “Does anybody truly believe that we won’t have this fight again in a couple of more months?” he asked rhetorically. “Even at Christmas?”