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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.
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.”