Washington leadership" has never seemed more an oxymoron than in the waning days of July, when the wrangle over America's debt ceiling paralyzed the nation's capitol — and disgusted the nation's citizens. A CNN/Opinion Research Survey released Aug. 2 showed 77 percent of Americans thought Congress behaved like "spoiled children" during the protracted political debate. The battle over the deficit and the debt ceiling raged for months, but only Congress' pigheadedness prolonged it to the eleventh hour, when an agreement was reached that seemed to satisfy few, be they progressives, Tea Partiers or moderates. It's not easy to rile both MSNBC and Fox News viewers, but this Congress managed it.
Politics is the art of compromise. Unfortunately, most Tea Party Republicans forgot that compromise means giving up some objectives for the greater good — and too many Democrats forgot that compromise also requires good faith negotiation. Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner saw the GOP agenda hijacked by Tea Party tantrums. The GOP's right wing refused to consider tax increases, even though a recent Gallup poll found only one in five Americans preferred lowering the deficit solely through spending cuts. For his part, President Barack Obama caved. On July 15, he said, "But if you're trying to get to $2.4 trillion without any revenue, then you are effectively gutting a whole bunch of domestic spending that is going to be too burdensome and is not going to be something that I would support." Two weeks later, he supported exactly that — and his poll numbers cratered. Having disappointed (and perhaps alienated) the base that elected him, Obama's 2012 strategy seems to be the fact he isn't Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann.
The debt-ceiling debate was an ugly spectacle all the way around. It reached a nadir on July 30, when NBC News showed footage of soldiers in Afghanistan anxiously seeking reassurance that their paychecks wouldn't bounce. Congress can't claim to "support the troops" when soldiers have to worry about being paid. Not once during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has the American public been asked to sacrifice anything for the war effort. Those who seek to lay the current fiscal crisis solely at Obama's feet need to remember the runaway expenses of the Bush-Cheney years, which Congress was happy to put on the national credit card. For all their excesses, the Tea Party at least can take credit for putting the debt crisis front and center.
The last decade also saw an increase in partisanship, with elected officials putting party above country. Washington has been transformed into a place where "winning" has nothing to do with what's good for America and everything to do with scoring "points" against political foes. Combine that with the belligerence and utter lack of civility among many Tea Party-backed freshmen, and you have a toxic brew on Capitol Hill.
The final vote cleaved Louisiana's GOP House delegation — which normally votes in lockstep — neatly in two. Reps. Rodney Alexander of Quitman, Charles Boustany of Lafayette and Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge voted for the compromise, while John Fleming of Minden, Jeff Landry of New Iberia and Steve Scalise of Metairie voted no. The state's sole Democratic representative, Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, voted for it. On the Senate side, Democrat Mary Landrieu voted for the bill, but couldn't contain her disgust with the whole process. GOP Sen. David Vitter was the first to take the Senate floor when debate on the bill began Aug. 1, thunderously denouncing it and making the rounds of conservative talk shows to claim that the draconian cuts didn't go far enough.
For all of Vitter's puffing and posturing, the fact remains that Louisiana takes much more out of the federal treasury than it puts in. A 2005 survey of federal spending by state (the most recent available) found Louisiana was 49th in federal taxes paid per capita but 12th in federal spending received. For every $1 sent to Washington, Louisiana got back $1.78. The figures were similar for 2004. When the budget axe falls, it's likely to hit Louisiana with extra force — and when the full measure of the cuts is known, Louisiana voters should remember how their representatives voted.