January 5, 2014
Happy new year!
We all make our share of mistakes. I’ve learned making mistakes is the best way to learn. Thinking you can get it right all the time is wishful thinking. We’re not perfect … just human.
Still, no one likes to repeat mistakes — unless, it seems, you’re the U.S. Congress, which seems addicted to the surprise and indifferent to the pain it causes the average citizen.
And yet, at the end of 2013, Congress may have learned its lesson. Or at least a lesson. After all, it did something right: It avoided another heart-stopping budget cliff-hanger. A burst of bipartisan voting produced our first budget in four years. Lawmakers seemed pleasantly surprised (“We got that right?”) when they noticed the opposite side voting with them (“What are you doing here?”). For years, President Barack Obama has suggested Congress pass a budget by beginning with items Democrats and Republicans agreed about. Just before Christmas, they actually tried it, and it worked. Apparently, Congress learned from a recent big mistake: shutting down the government for a few weeks, while voters fumed and the rest of the world made fun of us.
Of course, fear can be a good motivator — in this case, fear that if members of Congress caused one more financial crisis, citizens with pitchforks and torches might greet them at the airport when they returned home. So, too, can pressure motivate. Witness House Speaker John Boehner’s ticked-off reaction to the response of “uber-conservative” groups (i.e., Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and Freedomworks) to the very modest budget deal.
When one of them said, toward the end of the shutdown, that they never thought it would get Obamacare defunded, Boehner bellowed, “Are you kidding me?”
Boehner must have been kidding the American people, because he also knew a shutdown wouldn’t force Obama to defund health care for millions. If he “let” the House have its way, its mistake was his.
As the budget deal began to simmer, it seemed for a while that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would spoil the brew. Earlier, he had mentioned to CBS’ Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” what he was expecting “to come out of the next (budget deadline) episode that we’ll have in January and February.”
Schieffer was a little non-plussed: “But wouldn’t it be a good idea, maybe, to start reengaging before early next year?” Schieffer politely asked. “Well,” McConnell replied, “what’s happening right now is there is a budget conference with Paul Ryan and Patty Murray. And they’re going to see if they can come up with a proposal.” McConnell may have felt upstaged, hoping to broker another deal himself with Harry Reid or Joe Biden, using the Jan. 15 cliffhanger as incentive. His aides widely leaked McConnell’s displeasure with the resultant Ryan-Murray deal, and analysts were saying it looked as if it would fall apart in the Senate.
McConnell gave way to common sense, or reality, and let the deal stand. That is how we got our Christmas sugarplum of a working budget and a guarantee of no looming government shutdowns for two years. Perhaps senators told McConnell that their voters were in no mood to begin the new year with Congress’ version of Russian roulette. So Congress has stopped trying to use the budget as a hammer to smash Obamacare, and the Republican leadership has abandoned defunding efforts — for now.
Speaking of mistakes, it might be argued Obama’s biggest was saying if people liked their insurance, they could keep it, without adding the obvious qualifiers that the insurance would have to meet the law’s minimum standards, or that companies would not arbitrarily cancel policies. The backlash on that “broken promise” gave Republicans hope that they could still oogey-boogeyman Obamacare in 2014 — without a 46th effort to defund it. Congress may have learned that “government by gunpoint” only goes so far.
Which brings us to the next debt ceiling conference in March. Twice before, Republicans held the nation’s good credit hostage, making outrageous, hyper-dramatic demands for its release. I’m not certain Congress realizes its budget lesson applies here, too: Cooperation isn’t just expected by the voters, it’s demanded.
For more than five years, McConnell and Boehner have let the tea party Republicans turn every budget or debt debate into some ultimate fighting video game or reality TV show.
Maybe, just maybe, Congress has learned that governance is not a video game and the reality in which most Americans live is not in front of a camera, producing sound bites.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Congress decided to start off the new year right — cooperating on paying our just debts (for money Congress already spent), and doing some old-fashioned negotiating in good faith and compromising for the benefit of all? And speaking of the benefit of all, in the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one.”
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.