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Congress' Busted September

"Members of the U.S. Congress have had great fun berating the Iraqi parliament for their failure to address Iraq’s catastrophic problems. But, according to Straus Project Director Winslow Wheeler, at least the Iraqi legislature has compelling reasons for its factionalism and inactivity. What’s our legislators’ excuse? Wheeler expounds in a commentary published by Politico on Aug. 19. Read it here.

Congress’ Busted September,” was first published by Politico on Aug. 10, 2007. "

Congress' Busted September

By Winslow Wheeler

Having lectured the Iraqi parliament for its adjournment despite piles of undone work, the American Congress has skulked out of town with at least as much unaccomplished. One difference between the two national legislatures is the supposition that when the American Congress returns in September the undone work will be attended to. In any fundamental sense, that’s baloney.

Two core issues were left unresolved by our Congress when it traipsed out of town earlier this month, runaway federal spending and Iraq.

Like so many before it, the 110th Congress is on course to fail to pass all twelve appropriations bills needed to fund the government before the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1. Failing to do so makes it easier to ignore the fundamental, long-term spending problems Congress has helped to exacerbate.

Political posturing by Democratic and Republican members has already begun. President George W. Bush affronted the Democrats by lecturing them on getting their work done on time—without a single word about trying to work together in any meaningful sense to find constructive middle ground. No slouches for disingenuous gestures, the Democrats are already cuing up the appropriations bills in a manner to maneuver Bush into supporting their big-spending agenda.

The outcome is painfully clear—just like it is every year. Democrats will give Bush the spending increases he wants in the parts of the already bloated defense budget, which have nothing to do with the war. In return Democrats will receive spending on their politically favored goodies: children’s health care and a litany of other domestic spending—all to be supplemented with a bout of bridge repair and infrastructure reconstruction. It all adds up to an uncoordinated spending spasm about to hit the public’s pocketbook with a vengeance.

The result will be a continued mismatch of rapidly growing spending and not so rapidly growing revenues, layered on top of continued unwillingness to reduce, let alone kill off, over-bloated baseline defense spending and money for ineffective, but expensive, domestic programs.

The other problem is, of course, the war. Having failed to confront President Bush with any real obstruction to his mangled and mangling wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Democrats, who it will be recalled were elected on a platform to do something about it, would like us to think there will be some sort of titanic confrontation in September when President Bush’s latest “last hope” in the form of General Petraeus gives his much ballyhooed report. The politically attuned general will clearly report to his approving boss and the nation that he and the president’s surge have made oh so much progress and now—rather, then—will be no time for Congress to pull out the funding rug. The vast majority of Congress will then be frozen in the headlights of General Petraeus’ implied promise that just a few more months of war will mean something new in Iraq.

The Democrats will cave to the requirement for more war funding without limiting conditions; they have to. They have failed and will fail (by not trying) to put together a winning anti-war coalition by embracing enough Republicans to override a Bush veto. Triumphant in their defeat, the Democrats will blame Bush and the Republicans for refusing to join then, and then they will adjourn Congress. They’ll say they wish they could have done more, but George W. Bush just wouldn’t give way.

The continuation of the war and the continued federal deficit will be all Bush’s and the Republicans’ fault. The Democrats will know a lot of voters won’t buy it, but they will also expect that at least enough voters will buy it to give the Democrats the White House (and Congress) in the November elections.

That, after all, is their plan. It’s not fiscal responsibility or an end to the war the Democrats seek; it’s power. Their behavior is clearly fixed around that design: Don’t resolve the issues, but draw them, and do so in a way so that the finger is plausibly pointed at the other side.

Of course, the Republicans will try to do the same, but objective conditions are not in their favor. The feeble claim that the surge in Iraq is working is beginning to self-destruct: both U.S. and Iraqi deaths are up, not down, and it is becoming clear that the recent “progress” in Al Anbar province has absolutely nothing to do with the surge. The pain of the misadventure in Iraq will elevate, and there will be a penalty in the elections for those politicians associated with it. All but a few Republicans will be toast in any properly contested election.

Who is to blame for the unattended mismatch between revenues and spending in the federal budget will be less clear cut, but if there is a draw on that subject, the Democrats will be delighted.

The Iraqi parliament at least has the virtue of a reason for its self-induced chaos and un-productivity: the country is wracked by a civil war provoked by a hostile, alien occupation. What’s our excuse?"