ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Bitter battle over fiscal cliff reveals breakdown of trust
Publication Date : 07-01-2013
"The political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed."
This was the stinging indictment of Washington that ratings agency Standard & Poor's (S&P) delivered in August 2011, when it downgraded the United States' credit rating for the first time in history following a damaging legislative battle over the country's debt ceiling.
That S&P statement 17 months ago could just as well describe present-day Washington and the gloomy political outlook for 2013.
The White House and duelling lawmakers not only kicked off the New Year with a messy resolution to the "fiscal cliff" crisis, but also set the stage for a repeat of the destabilising debt ceiling showdown and fresh fiscal battles over government spending in the coming months.
"What this means is that we can't get anything serious done without a real crisis," said Bill Schneider, a senior fellow with the Third Way think-tank.
"That's partly the way our system was designed, but it is also because the two parties have become dug in... we have not been this divided since the Civil War."
Things looked a little more promising eight weeks ago when President Barack Obama won re-election convincingly despite high unemployment and an extremely well-funded challenge by his Republican rival Mitt Romney.
On the night of his victory, Obama held out an olive branch that House Speaker John Boehner, nominally the most powerful Republican in Washington, appeared to accept.
Boehner told a press conference the day after the election: "Let's rise above the dysfunction, and do the right thing together for our country in a bipartisan way."
But if there was even an iota of hope that Washington would be less dysfunctional in 2013 and make progress on major items on Obama's second-term agenda, such as immigration reforms or tighter gun control laws, they were promptly dashed by the chaotic manner by which the White House and duelling lawmakers dealt with the "fiscal cliff" crisis in recent weeks.
At the heart of the political logjam were two major problems with no solutions in sight - a breakdown of trust between Obama and senior Republican leaders, and a leadership crisis within the increasingly divided Republican Party.
The battle over the "fiscal cliff" laid bare the twin problems in painful detail.
When Obama and Boehner took the initial lead on the crisis - essentially a series of major tax hikes and government spending cuts that could tip the US economy back into recession - both tried for a "grand bargain" that would not only fix the immediate problems but also address longer-term issues like entitlement and tax reforms.
But neither side trusted each other to deliver the goods or negotiate in good faith, leading to a spectacular breakdown in talks on December 20, just 11 days from the "fiscal cliff" deadline.
It was the second time in as many years that the President and the Speaker saw their high-stakes economic negotiations break down in acrimony. In the summer of 2011, both men traded blame in public when they broke off talks to lift the country's debt ceiling.
In the end, it was not Obama but Vice-President Joe Biden, a veteran of the Senate with deep ties to his former congressional colleagues, who managed to broker a successful deal with the Republicans on New Year's Eve. The Senate passed the deal hours later by an overwhelming 89-8 margin.
But going ahead, it is unclear who Obama can work with to repair ties, given the split in the top rungs of the Republican Party.
For instance, during the final vote to approve the "fiscal cliff" deal, the top three Republicans in the House of Representatives broke ranks publicly.
Boehner supported the deal while the No. 2 and No. 3 Republicans in the House, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, opposed it.
The losing Republican candidates in the recent presidential election - Romney and Paul Ryan - were completely absent from the "fiscal cliff" negotiations as well, and have thus far said little about how the party should move ahead.
"(The Republicans) have had a brain freeze since the election," New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks memorably said on the Meet The Press television show recently.
He added: "They have no strategy. They don't know what they want. And they haven't decided what they want."
It is unclear what, if anything, would break this cycle of political dysfunction in Washington, particularly the "asymmetrical polarisation" that has made the Republican Party far more intransigent and ideologically rigid than the Democrats in recent years.
Scholars have suggested that some structural reforms, such as severely restricting the use of filibusters in legislative debates, would help. But few in Washington are holding their breath for such an outcome, given the lack of common interests or incentives for compromise.
A detailed study of November's election results by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report found that just 15 out of 234 Republicans elected to the House were from congressional districts won by Obama.
Veteran congressional scholar Norm Ornstein estimated that 50 or more Republican lawmakers in the House are practically immune to pressures from public opinion or broad election results, thanks to redistricting and ideological segregation.
For Obama, this means the only plausible near-term solution to Washington's gridlock is to fight another election - not for himself, but to get more Democratic lawmakers into office.
The mid-term legislative elections coming up in November next year would give him a chance to help the Democrats gain unified control of Congress. That would involve retaining or improving the Democrats' majority control of the Senate, and winning an additional 18 or more seats in the House.
It would be an uphill battle, and Obama has repeatedly said he'll "never campaign" or worry about another election again.
But if he wants his next four years in office to be more productive than the last two, he will have to break this New Year resolution pretty soon.