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Each year, the Georgia legislature gathers in Atlanta to attend to the state’s business in its 40-day session. And each year, observers, pundits and editorialists ponder on whether lawmakers accomplish much in the Gold Dome.
But in comparison, the work of our state lawmakers is a virtual whirlwind compared to what goes on — or more specifically, what doesn’t — in Washington, D.C.
When the General Assembly session wraps up next week, there likely will be new laws concerning boating under the influence, juvenile justice reform, funding for Medicaid and an actual state budget (by law, one must be passed and balanced). That’s a decent list of achievements for three months’ work.
Now look to the nation’s capital, where the sum total of meaningful legislation passed in the last four years could be written on the back of a postcard.
As the end of 2012 approached, lawmakers in Washington squared off over the “fiscal cliff” to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. When no permanent agreement on taxes and spending cuts could be reached, leaders in Congress and the White House did what they always do: Approved a temporary plan and shuffled the problem off into the future.
They faced another deadline in March, this one for across-the-board “sequestration” budget cuts that some, including the president, predicted would be a catastrophe. We’re still waiting for the sky to fall as a result. But despite the claims of Armageddon, nobody budged to stop it.
In each case, the two warring parties in Washington were unable to reach any kind of common ground despite claims they were determined to do so. And Friday, Senate Democrats passed a budget for the first time in four years.
Now we face the same potential impasse over immigration reform. After last year’s election, in which GOP nominee Mitt Romney earned barely a quarter of Latino votes, many Republicans vowed to change their hard-line stance and consider some sort of legal status for the 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants working in the U.S.
But now, even with a bipartisan group of eight senators promising to craft a bill, the push has stalled. The latest hangup: Unions pushing for higher wages for low-income workers. It’s always something.
So no budgets, no tax reform, no immigration reform. Day after day, 435 representatives and 100 senators go to work on Capitol Hill and do ... what exactly? Make speeches. Go on talk shows. Eat in the Capitol cafeteria, then work out in the Capitol gym. Hardly worth what we’re paying.
Whatever side of this political trench warfare we may be on, it’s valid to ask: Why do we even need a Congress?
Of course, the Constitution requires a legislative body to balance the executive and judicial, but it’s not doing a very good job of that at the moment.
And elections are no help. Because our nation is so polarized, right and left, and congressional districts have been gerrymandered to preserve such ideological purity, there is little incentive for our elected employees to find common ground. Instead, the right tilts further right, the left leans further left, and the middle, where solutions often are found, becomes a no man’s land.
As a result, the legislative branch has become so hamstrung, so impotent, it is now irrelevant. That hands more power to the executive branch and a president who seems all too willing to use it, and that is not in anyone’s best interests.
It’s not that basic policy differences are new. The tug-of-war between two political factions over the size, scope and funding of the federal government began with the nation’s founders. But somehow those wise men overcame their differences to create a system of government that is emulated worldwide. Had today’s leaders represented us at the constitutional convention, we’d still be living under a temporary document.
Throughout U.S. history, leaders from both sides have found ways to bridge the gap and solve problems often enough to keep the engine of American progress humming. So why can’t they do so now?
Here’s one theory: In an era when the only thing that truly motivates elected leaders are getting elected, they may be seeking to preserve all of these issues as a wedge against the other side.
Take immigration: Solve it and it fades away as a campaign battering ram. Leave it unresolved and you can still use it to demonize the opposing party. Such was the case with health care and other issues over the years: promises made then unfulfilled, followed by fingers pointed lustily at the other side.
There’s nothing wrong with spirited debate and differences between parties on philosophies of governance; that’s why we have choices on the ballot. But at some point, there needs to be some kind of governance. Right now, no one is doing anything but griping about how there’s no bipartisanship — which is, they say, always the fault of the other side.
It takes two to tango. Right now, our elected leaders are squared off on either side of the dance floor while the music plays. Nothing — absolutely nothing — is getting done. And it gets more ridiculous by the day.