Consul General’s Corner
August 1, 2011
I’ve spent the month of July traveling across the United States, from such Democratic strongholds as Hollywood and Chicago (where President Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, is mayor) to Republican territory in Michigan and Florida. Throughout, I’ve noticed sustained attention to the United States debt ceiling debate. As the August 2 deadline will not be reached by press time, I can’t comment on the outcome. Rather, I’ve been interested in the process behind this latest Congressional showdown.
When the U.S. Congress brought us close to a government shutdown in April, I noted the importance of debate in the American system. By threatening to let the U.S. government run out of money, in effect, Congress demanded that the President confer with it on government priorities. Now we are facing a potential collapse of U.S. credit, abroad as well as domestically, which both parties in Congress are using as a means to pressure the other side. The Republican party suggested shifting the decision for the raising the debt ceiling to the President alone; or passing a stop-gap measure to avoid default. The President rejected both proposals as attempts to transfer responsibility to the Democrats ahead of the 2012 election. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, has said, "A short-term solution is no solution at all." His proposal calls for unspecified spending cuts that could include defense measures following the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Senate proposal was unlikely to be accepted by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, whose own proposal was unacceptable to the Senate. On Wednesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner – a Republican propelled to power by the Tea Party movement, which opposes big government – told the media, "It's time to do what is doable, and this bill isn't perfect.” He recognized that compromise would be necessary to escape gridlock.
One of the most interesting comments I’ve read on the debt debate was that the founding fathers of the United States structured our government to encourage compromise. We don’t have a parliamentary system – where power can shift immediately if there is dissatisfaction with the government – precisely because we want to foster collaboration.
My grandmother was a staunch Republican, while my grandfather supported the Democrats. They were married for over 50 years. Such cohabitation was possible as politics were not as polarized in their time. Now, however, the difference between the two parties is much sharper. The long-running Sunday morning television program “Meet the Press” invited White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Arizona Senator (Republican) Jon Kyl to explain both parties’ positions. Exasperated commentator Bob Schieffer, now over 80 years old, ended the program by reporting that the Federal Aviation Administration was forced to furlough some employees because of Congressional inaction. Air traffic controllers continue to work so that air travel could continue. “If it weren’t so inconvenient, I’d close all the airports,” Mr. Schieffer said. “Then Congressional representatives could travel to their home districts by bus, giving the phrase ‘their way or the highway’ a new meaning.”
The American public is getting similarly exasperated. They are writing to their Congressmen – the elected representatives for their respective districts – to express their displeasure with the gridlock. Americans television news, newspapers, and the Internet portals are reporting each new proposal and opinion poll on the subject. House Speaker Boehner is walking a fine line, trying to appease the Tea Party flank in Congress while gaining Democratic approval for his proposal. The President is on a similarly tight path, avoiding default while safeguarding government programs.
Such free debate and give-and-take are hallmarks of American society, with individuals weighing in on the government debate. Whatever the outcome of the debt ceiling dilemma, Congress and the President know Americans will show how they feel when they vote in the 2012 election. It’s nice to think the public will reward bipartisan compromise.