After Congress avoided default on U.S. debt obligations, the media reported the opinions and recriminations of politicians and pundits on why the country had been subjected to the humiliating spectacle of a "dysfunctional government."
One question we should now ask is: What have we learned from this episode about the federal government's capability to deal with fundamental problems confronting the nation?
Here are five conclusions I draw from this painful period of watching Congress and the president refuse to face up to the full implications of the dangerous debt crisis.
This Congress is incapable of deciding major issues. Its failure to reach agreement on major debt reduction is but one of many issues that members seem unwilling to resolve. Energy policy, immigration reform, agriculture subsidies, transportation needs are crucial national problems requiring congressional action. But they were put aside as legislators wrangled over how to cut the budget.
U.S. stock markets dropped after failure by Congress to agree on serious long-term debt reduction, and markets around the world responded negatively. Standard and Poor's downgraded its AAA rating on U.S. debt for the first time,
Elections have consequences. The 2010 congressional elections resulted in the Republican Party's gaining control of the House of Representatives, a major change in the political dynamics of Washington. Many new members are supporters of the tea party movement whose objectives are: drastically cut federal spending, reduce taxes, and rein in the size of government. Although many liberals and pundits denounced their tactics, a few calling them "terrorists," the reality is that these new conservatives represent a growing segment of American voters and may increase their strength in 2012.
Cuts in Medicare and Medicaid are needed. A major reason Congress could not agree on long-term debt reduction was the adamant opposition of liberal Democrats to any reductions in health care for seniors and those who can't pay. Health costs are ballooning at an unsustainable rate, and most experts agree that these entitlement costs must be substantially reduced or they will break the federal budget.
Social Security is in a different category. It will remain solvent for at least twenty years and its long-term viability can be assured by gradually increasing the eligibility age to 70 and, potentially, means-testing the amount paid to recipients.
All Americans, not just the rich, should pay more taxes. Tea party diehards argue that federal entitlements and other government programs can be cut without increasing revenues of any kind. However, the voting public will not permit the massive reductions in federal programs demanded by tea party leaders. Democrats persist in arguing that the budget can be balanced by "taxing the rich," which they view as an annual income of more than $250,000.
Some think the tax problem will be resolved in December 2012 when the Bush- era tax cuts expire. But even this new revenue, which is denounced by tea party hardliners, will not cut federal budget deficits sufficiently to stabilize our huge national debt. So, a national sales tax may be seen as a way to increase revenues without further raising tax rates for individuals.
Defense spending and foreign aid need to be reduced. For ten years after the 9-11 attacks, annual defense budgets were greatly increased and today the DOD budget is roughly double that of 2001. Many conservatives worry that cutting defense will make the country more vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and encourage states like Iran to press their designs against neighbors and endanger regional peace.
It is time for the United States to realize it can no longer be the world's policeman. and that its military forces and supporting budgets need to be focused more narrowly on areas of vital national interest. This suggests a more rapid withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and avoidance of new troop commitments to some regions, for example, the Middle East where Arab countries are in a revolutionary period.
The Founding Fathers gave us a constitution that provides safeguards on individual freedoms. Separation of powers and "checks and balances" among three branches of government are enshrined in our basic law. But how does society deal with a crisis in which checks and balances lead to political gridlock, social unrest simmers, and the government is threatened with paralysis?
During wartime we give the president extraordinary powers to deal with a security crisis, and in 1933 we gave the president broad authority to cope with near economic paralysis. In 2011, are we nearing a point where the president should be given additional authority to deal with the budget crisis if Congress does not?
File last modified on Monday, 14-AUG-2011 1:31 PM EST