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Is the U.S. congress capable of governing?

January 2nd, 2013
05:57 PM ET

U.S. Congress - a self-inflicted wound

Dysfunction in D.C.

By Mick Krever, CNN

Like a browbeaten partier slowly facing up to reality on New Year’s Day, the U.S. Congress on Tuesday relented and passed a bill to step back from the fiscal, and possibly recessionary, cliff.

There is still a serious question facing American government as a new year begins: Is the U.S. congress capable of governing?

It was just one year ago that the U.S. stepped to the edge of another cliff, defaulting on its debt payments, and another such deadline is just around the corner. President Obama will begin his second term in under three weeks with a long list of goals, of which tackling the deficit is just one.

Joe Manchin, a conservative Senate Democrat, summed up the frustration succinctly just before the Fiscal Cliff deal was passed.

“Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress,” he said on the senate floor.

U.S. fiscal cliff deal boosts world markets

The Fiscal Cliff was a self-imposed deadline, enacted by congress in an attempt to force itself to enact a “grand bargain” to reduce the deficit. That goal failed.

Barney Frank, a veteran House Democrat who is stepping down after 32 years in office, points to a single cause for the dysfunction.

“There’s a very clear explanation for this, and you saw it yesterday when John Boehner was able to get barely more than one third of the republicans to vote for a deal that everybody else had agreed to,” Frank told CNN’s Fionnuala Sweeney.

The 2010 midterm elections, he said, brought to power House Republicans “who do not believe in governance.”

Frank demurred from running for a 17th term in congress partly because of “redistricting” – the state-level practice of remapping congressional districts, often to favor the election of one party. Indeed, Frank blamed the practice for enabling the election of the election of House Republicans with “rigid, extremist ideology.”

Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, agreed that the ideological skew is more extreme in the Republican Party.

“You still have a center in the Democratic Party,” Ornstein said. “The big problem is the growth of a group of radicals – they’re not even conservatives anymore – for whom cutting taxes is the only mantra. It trumps anything, including getting a fiscal house in order.”

Congressman Frank conceded that the Republicans had been successful in maintaining their majority in the House of Representatives, but that they must “accept the results” of the November election.

“Everybody else, the House Democrats, the Senate Republicans, the Senate Democrats, the President, came together on a deal that none of us liked entirely, or even substantially,” he said, “but we knew we have to compromise.”

Chrystia Freeland, the editor of Thomson Reuters Digital, said that the division of power in U.S. government is partly to blame.

“The prime minister in most European countries,” she said, “presents a budget and it’s voted on that afternoon. You push it through. So American politics, for it to work, requires a much greater, not just spirit, but culture and practice of bipartisanship than most countries. And the problem is it’s broken down.

Frank lamented the state of American politics, but said he found it “paradoxical” that the rest of the world is so critical of the U.S. for not reducing its debt.

“They need to understand that one way we do that is for our European allies to start taking care of their own defense, and not hiding behind the American military budget,” he said. Frank has long advocated for cuts to America’s military budget, by far the highest of any country in the world.

And despite dysfunction in America’s congress, Frank said that he still considered the U.S.’s situation to be relatively favorable, especially when compared to the European Union.

“Again the proof is that everybody in the world’s who’s got extra money – their first choice for safety is to put it here,” he said.

The U.S. government still enjoys extremely low borrowing costs, which is a testament to investors’ faith in its ability to avoid default. Congress will once again have to decide whether to honor its debt payments in late February or early March.

“The question is,” Frank said, “will the responsible elements in the republican party finally stand up to their extremists and say no, we will debate about issues, we will push for spending cuts, but we won’t endanger the economy by refusing to do something that ought to be routine, raising the debt limit.”

Is cliff deal really a win for Americans?

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. harry

    While the American politicians are busy rooting out dictators and corrupt politicians in other countries, they have failed to do the same at home. Our system is broken and our politicians do not the best interest of the Americans at heart.

    Next election we must bring real CHANGE to Washington and REPLACE most of the long term, old politicians with some new young blood who are not influenced by special interest groups and lobbyists. By the way, we also must ban lobbyists and special interest groups from influencing or dictating what the government should do.

    January 3, 2013 at 12:07 am | Reply
    • Connie

      Harry, I agree with you. But we need to find someone who is honest and that wants to run. This cannot only be 1 state, it needs to be all the states and we need to put a term limite in place. They are all filling their pockets with our tax money and when things go wrong they fight like little children and put the blame on someone else.

      Come on America let get people into office that really care about this country.

      January 3, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Reply
      • Alejandro Cervantes

        It might just be that we do need a leader that has more power line a dictator

        January 27, 2013 at 2:57 am |
    • Alex Cowan

      I don't know how you ban the lobbyists, but I think term limits are the best (but imperfect) solution to both. Being a legislator wasn't meant to be a career. It was meant to be the kind of public service that you step up to do and then, Cincinnatus-like, go back to the real world.

      January 3, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Reply
    • john

      Can't any American see that the only savior of the country's debt crisis is to cut military spending? As if you would be American's top enemy if you just mention military spending cut. Until then, America is hopeless.

      January 3, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Reply
      • Thomas Egebak

        Even cutting military spending to 0$ would not be enough. It would not even be close. The budget deficit is is somewhere around 1.2 trillion $ while the Military consumes just 0.7 trillion $.

        January 4, 2013 at 4:24 am |
  2. Andy in Oz

    From what I understand of the system it is designed in such a way as to make relatively quick passage of legislation through both houses a long shot at best, that is just the way that it would appear to work.

    January 3, 2013 at 2:24 am | Reply
  3. NoMoreRetoric

    Congress is not the problem, but the majority of troublemakers who are currently serving in it. Greed and ideology and poorly skilled leaders are the problem. Remove the corruption, lobbyists and the greed and our congress stands a chance of doing some good

    January 3, 2013 at 5:55 am | Reply
  4. antelope0001

    Is it difficult to solve the Fiscal Cliff's question? No, many Americans have habit of U.S. dollars` earnings and profits.
    The U.S. dollars is everything, and the U.S. dollars is nothing. Most of chinese know: Everything is your hands and brains, not your dreams or rules. The rules is important, but you must do something with your hands and brains. Hunger is a little relation to your dreams.
    If your government didn't save you, you ought to rescue it by yourself.

    January 3, 2013 at 6:26 am | Reply
    • harry

      Antelope 0001... You are not an American? Sadly, you are right. The Americans are destroying themselves from within. But do not underestimate us, when the going gets rough, we always get tough. We will change our system and ways and eventually come back on top.

      January 3, 2013 at 6:44 am | Reply
      • Gov

        harry that was America of the past. Sadly the American dreams will be killed by Americans themselves. These world economic problems will be solved by one world economy which is how it's designed.

        January 3, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  5. John

    .Firstlly Miss Sweeney should let people explain after she fires a question at them.. she ask serious questions that require time to answer.. and then in the middle she opens her mouth trying to fire in another question... so lets say also the media is also to blame for the problems in Society for basically not listening and showing a thin veneer with no depth to there initial questions . no depth in the sense that the problems they are inquiring about dont matter its just TV and selling advertising is the most important.... so basically many of there questions are aimed at provocation and entertainment and no where near the Aim of solving the actual problem being discussed.

    January 3, 2013 at 6:47 am | Reply
  6. John

    By firing in questions in the middle of someone answering is not only disrespectful it actually harms CNN and takes away the Viewers Focus on the Story....its like me trying to take a penalty at football and someone keeps trying to throw tennis balls at me at the same time expecting me to keep my concentration and focus . Mrs Sweeney show some respect... your just shooting yourself in the foot with your impatience and hast

    January 3, 2013 at 6:53 am | Reply
  7. John

    Mrs Sweeney your basically saying you dont give a Rats ass about the problem .. then i ask you ., how can one have a serious discussion on the subject when you dont give a damn

    January 3, 2013 at 6:54 am | Reply
  8. Olb

    I'm european : feel free to cut your military budgets.
    WW2 et cold wars are over.

    But thanks again for your help in the past.

    January 3, 2013 at 6:55 am | Reply
  9. Mark Puglise

    Since the inception of the Federal Reserve in 1931, the US has been managing the bankruptcy. Yes, Congress is the single greatest factor that is damaging the US economy. We need to go over the fiscal cliff, reduce spending, and balance budgets. Otherwise, we will continue this slide down economic ruin.

    January 3, 2013 at 6:59 am | Reply
  10. Ram Riva

    Is Congress capable of governing??.....this congress??......NNOOO !!!!!!!!

    January 3, 2013 at 8:40 am | Reply
  11. Wimpi Handoko

    I'm amazed at the American people not admitting to the very basic fact that some Americans and you know who I am referring to that still can't believe that a African-American can become the President of the United States of America and this disbelieve have turn them into fanatics that Martin Luther King have fought against until his death. It took former rulers of South Africa less than 10 years to come to their senses (have they?). It's taking the US of A more than 230 years to get into this stage, yet it's still not finished. Sigh..what a democrazy. Good luck!

    January 3, 2013 at 9:00 am | Reply
  12. Mark

    I would appreciate it if CNN would stop pretending Barney Frank has any idea what is going on. He practically ruined this country with his Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac BS. Please PLEASE stop holding him up as anything but what he is: A fat liar

    January 3, 2013 at 9:07 am | Reply
  13. John

    The fact is, Obama has brought this coutnry far, and would have brought it much further, without the obstruction of the tea party. And this is exactly what the Teabaggers fear: That Democratic policies will work. Their old-boy white conservative network is on its way out, and they will fight by whatever means, fair or unfair. They gerry-mander. They put out legislation to obstruct voting rights (most of which thankfully was overturned by the courts). They are now clearly in the minority, and it's a shrinking minority. And they will continue to kick and scream, like a bratty child, because it's the only game they have left.

    January 3, 2013 at 9:36 am | Reply
    • brian

      If the Republicans are the minority...will you, John, give us minority status and pay for my kids school, give us first pick of federal jobs, basically all the perks that minorities's time we start taking and since you John are the majority its time you start giving...and we'll let you know when to stop.

      January 3, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  14. AB

    This congress is day dreaming.It is evident that the Republicans would have gone to court to challenge Obama victory and even urge their over zealous members to hit the streets and protest if not for the pride that the rest of the world whom they have portrayed themselves for as thin-gods will laugh at them.It is a farce,decoy and mirage the image of self contentment america portray outward.Even the loud mouthed american media were embarrassed by disgust display by their adorable lawmakers.Only one thing that unite them is to enact anti-palestine laws.Very soon they will make haste in executing errand of their israeli bosses by revoking PLO Office in Washington. Shameeeee

    January 3, 2013 at 9:55 am | Reply
  15. Michael Barnes

    It is unfortunate that the world's most powerful economy has such a weak system of management. The Economic Illiiteratae of the Lower House (as in Europe) will always pander to local interest – irrespective of national priority. In the meantime , your President is an Economic Eunuch. What is even more disturbing is that national priority (when we talk about USA) is really about the global future. So this is left to mostly local hicks with no understanding, appreciation, knowledge, or interest in the rest of the world.

    January 3, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Reply
  16. brian

    Maybe, instead of asking if Congress can govern, the question should be, "Is Congress doing what it was sent to Washington to do?" The Republicans have a majority in Congress, therefore, I think it would be safe to assume, that they were sent there to stand up to President Obama. A majority at the national level voted for Obama, and a majority at the local level voted for their Republican representative. They were sent there to deal with each other...not allow one to run rough shod over the other. If Republicans don't stand up to President Obama and just rubber stamp his wishes, they are not doing what they were sent there to do. This is an ideological fight between individual freedoms and the size and scope of government. The media, instead of trying to shape public opinion should just report the facts and leave it at that.

    January 3, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  17. Colmery

    It is not possible to do what hundreds of millions of people want. We got where we are by using philosophy to work out how to manage our herd, broadly in it's best interests. We have bit by bit become transfixed by fashions which are largely dictated by consimer values. If America were to re-discover the values of its founders it would find they are nothing like those that now dictate what is possible, and what is not, in the Land of the Free.

    One of America's mega-rich should fund the creation of a reliably representative group of people who are instructed in the debates recorded in the Federation Papers then polled on how America should be governed. I think it would show that the USA has become a tyranny of activist minorities. One that your founders would have wept over.

    January 3, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  18. ajarnforrest

    Congress is dysfunctional, but as politics does not exist in a vacuum, so is political reporting like this piece. American economy on the verge of taking off? Where is talk of the new normal? Where is mention of the 40 Billion we're buying of our own debt each month. Where are the jobs? We're also paying billions to unemployed people – and maybe this is ultimately the Grand Bargain. Only the media, at heart, thinks we are going to return to the good ole days.

    January 3, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  19. john

    Can't any American see that the only savior of the country's debt crisis is to cut military spending? As if you would be American's top enemy if you just mention military spending cut. Until then, America is hopeless.

    January 3, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Reply
  20. john

    It won't be long before a child in the 'The Emperor's new clothes' yelling out that "we need to cut the military spending by half (perhaps 2/3) to save the country"!

    January 3, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Reply
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    January 4, 2013 at 2:09 am | Reply

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