, Salem, MA

January 3, 2013

Our view: A shameful time for Congress

The Salem News

---- — Americans would do well to resolve this new year to elect better people to represent them in Washington. The eleventh-hour wrangling to keep the nation from tumbling over the “fiscal cliff” indicates that there is great room for improvement in this regard.

This week, while most sensible people were home spending the holidays with their families, congressional leaders were in Washington, still trying to hammer out at the last minute a compromise they’ve had more than a year to engineer.

Not that there was anything important at stake — just a major hit to taxpayers’ wallets, the health of an already sickly economy and the fiscal solvency of the nation.

Tuesday night, they were able to compromise just enough to serve us a weak stew: In addition to neutralizing middle-class tax increases and spending cuts taking effect with the new year, the legislation will raise tax rates on incomes over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples. Instead of the sweeping changes both parties promised, the deal was another delaying tactic, one that did little to nothing to address the other half of the equation, long-term spending cuts.

At the end of July 2011, Congress and President Obama agreed to a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling and keep the United States from an unprecedented default on debt obligations. The major part of the deal was that, unless Congress could agree to some compromise on tax revenues and government spending by the start of 2013, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts totaling about $1.5 trillion would hit at the same time as the Bush-era tax cuts, the Obama payroll tax cut, and other tax breaks and credits expired.

This threat hanging over their heads was supposed to be enough to get members of Congress to act and get the growth of the federal debt under control. Yet it took until this week to get anything done, however weak.

Republicans, still reeling from their poor performance in the November elections, should not cave in and permit major tax increases without some accompanying cuts in spending. Raising taxes without cutting spending accomplishes little more than throwing gasoline on an already raging bonfire.

The sad reality is that Americans will discover in 2013 that these desperate negotiations are largely a sham. Our federal government will continue to spend far more money than it takes in. The only subject to debate is just how much more it will spend.

Our national debt now stands at $16.4 trillion. When we greet the arrival of 2014 a year from now, that figure will be higher still as America continues to support its current standard of living by mortgaging the future of our grandchildren.

Has a more irresponsible group of people ever had greater power over the fate of a nation? Has a group of political leaders ever failed more miserably to perform its most basic duties, even duties as basic as helping the country’s citizens recover from natural disasters?

How else to explain the decision of House Republicans to allow the current term of Congress to expire without holding a vote on disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy?

The Senate had approved a $60.4 billion measure Friday to help victims of the storm that leveled parts of New Jersey and New York. The House Appropriations Committee has a smaller, $27 billion plan and was expected to vote on it today — before House leaders decided to abandon a vote this session. Where it should spend, Congress doesn’t.

“I’m here tonight saying to myself for the first time that I’m not proud of the decision my team has made,” Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., said, according to The Associated Press. “It is the wrong decision, and I’m going to be respectful and ask that the speaker reconsider his decision. Because it’s not about politics, it’s about human lives.”

There is no doubt that the aid is needed, and quickly. It’s the type of spending Americans expect in a time of crisis — and make no mistake, many of the residents of New York and New Jersey are still facing a real crisis, not the orchestrated, last-minute fiscal cliff shenanigans we all just endured.

That’s shameful. And it won’t stop until we elect leaders with the political will to make harder, tougher decisions than the current occupants of the halls of Congress.