11/16/2012 09:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Friday Talking Points -- The Can-Kicking Congress

This is going to be a rather abbreviated column today. I'm struggling with massive computer problems, so even getting a short column out is going to be tough. This will probably restore some balance to the universe, as last week's post-election column was insanely long, I should mention.

But enough navel-gazing! What's in the news this week? Twinkies! No more Twinkies? Twinkie The Kid hanging up his spurs for good? Well, I can't say I'm devastated since the last time I ate a Twinkie was probably when I was a teenager, but it does seem to be what everyone's talking about so I had to at least mention it in passing, I suppose.

In politics, the media had a fun week traipsing through the underwear drawers of several high-ranking military officers. Republicans continue to obsess about the Obama administration's response to the Benghazi tragedy, while ignoring the fact that their party's leader not only reacted bizarrely to the story -- before the details were known -- but did so before the supposed Obama conspiracy even got off the ground. So what lesson are we to draw? Republicans are even faster at mis-reading a situation than Democrats? It's pretty easy to see who tried to politicize the situation first, which the American public has already realized and moved on from. Not John McCain, though, he's going to ride this pony just as far as he can (no surprise there, really).

The real news is happening behind closed doors, of course, as Congress absolutely must act before the end of the year or we're all driving over that fiscal cliff together. Or maybe it's just a "slope" -- this seems to be a new talking point from some pundits. Whichever... my money is on "nothing will actually happen until the last week in December, when a Band-Aid will be slapped over the whole thing and the can kicked as far down the road as the politicians think they can get away with." Not to mix metaphors, or anything, Sigh.

But I'll get to my true feelings towards Congress in a rant which will take the place of our talking points this week. First, though, let's hand out a few quick awards.


In the "strike while the iron is hot" category, we have two Democrats in Congress who are wasting no time introducing bills to try and fix our nation's voting woes. Both Senator Chris Coons and Representative George Miller deserve Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week awards this week for their efforts to solve an obvious problem (in some states, at least).

Are their bills the best idea to fix the problem? I don't know. Could the bills be better? Probably. But whether the perfect solution or not, now is the time to act. We were supposed to have solved this problem after the 2000 fiasco in Florida, but we still have a lot of work left to do, it seems.

Fixing voting problems is normally a pretty low priority in Washington. Which means if a bill doesn't make it through in the next six months, it will likely never happen. For realizing this and for pushing the issue in the lame duck Congress, Coons and Miller deserve Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week awards for their efforts.

[Congratulate Senator Chris Coons on his Senate contact page and Representative George Miller on his House contact page to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


We've got two Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week awards to hand out this week.

The first is for Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Because of the subject matter, we're linking to the ABC "Political Punch" column for the story.

Salazar recently responded to a question from a reporter by threatening to "punch out" the reporter. The question was on wild horses, so you can make your own joke (and/or Rolling Stones reference) here, if you'd like. Salazar was angry because the reporter, as he put it, "set me up."

Salazar has since apologized, but it will not get him out of being awarded a MDDOTW for his stupidity. Cabinet-level secretaries should know the difference between being "on the record" and being on an elementary school playground, one would think.

A second Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week is in order for Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. Now that the full facts are coming out, it seems the timeline for Jesse was: get investigated by the FBI for campaign finance crimes; check into the Mayo Clinic; check out of the Mayo Clinic and get spotted drinking in a bar in D.C.; check back into the Mayo Clinic; get re-elected by his constituents despite his disappearing act, which included not campaigning at all; and finally have the federal investigation made public after the election, when the story broke that Jackson was negotiating a plea deal where he'll probably spend some time in jail (where he can say hello to all the other Illinois politicians who are already there).

This is beyond "disappointing," really. It's downright inexcusable. Jackson knew what was going to happen at the very beginning of this fiasco -- his dipping into the campaign cash for his own pleasure would be made public, at some point. The honorable thing to do would have been to immediately resign, thus leaving a House seat open for some more deserving Democrat to run for. Jackson hung on, in some sort of delusion that he could beat the rap. Because he obviously is not going to (you don't enter into plea bargaining if you think you're going to win in court), I think part of his plea bargain should include "pay the state of Illinois every penny that a special election for his House seat is going to cost to run."

Since this is beyond my control, the least I can do is to hand him a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. Maybe once he gets to prison, he can enter into a contest with Rod Blagojevich to see who can get more MDDOTW awards or something. For shame, Jesse, for shame. Not just for dipping into the campaign funds, but for the narcissism of not immediately resigning once caught at it.

[Contact Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on the Department of the Interior's contact page and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. via his House contact page, to let them know what you think of their actions.]


Volume 235 (11/16/12)

[No talking points this week, instead I was overtaken by the need to rant.]

As we hurtle towards the fiscal cliff, one thing becomes obvious. Congress doesn't work. Not in the sense that "it's broken" or anything, they just do not work when they are supposed to be doing their jobs. Consider, if you will, the fact that this fiscal cliff did not just spring up suddenly. The looming deadline of Dec. 31 has been known for over a year now. In fact, it was Congress itself that set this deadline.

Every member of Congress began this year knowing what was going to happen at the end of 2012. They have now had over ten months to work on the impending crisis. And what have they done about it? Nothing.

That's right -- nothing. Not a damned thing.

Both parties are equally as culpable in this, I should add. Democrats and Republicans got together at the beginning of the year and shook hands on a deal. The deal was to do nothing until after the election. In fact, neither party's candidate even mentioned the fiscal cliff out on the campaign trail. The two parties agreed that they just weren't going to bring it up -- in the middle of an election.

This is not the way democracy is supposed to work, folks. Democrats and Republicans have different ideas about what to do to avoid the fiscal cliff. What is supposed to happen is that they are supposed to make the case -- in Congress, to each other; and in public, to the voters -- for their way out of the mess. The voters are supposed to be given a clear choice about what to do for the future. Then the voters can decide which they like, and vote accordingly.

This did not happen. Democrats and Republicans alike played the shameful game of "I won't tell if you won't tell" all year long. Which is disgusting. Some of them even announced, as early as February, that they'd be doing nothing all year and then attempting to do a year's work after the elections were over with. Both parties held the issue hostage, refusing to talk about it to the voters because they were scared their plans wouldn't be popular. This is nothing short of cowardice.

What set me off today was a story I read with quotes from an aide to Speaker of the House John Boehner. In it was this choice phrase: "Since tax and entitlement reform are too complex to complete this year, the speaker noted...."

Got that? It's just too darn complex to finish in the short time they've got left. Well, I don't know, maybe someone should ask the Speaker if it's so complex and requires a lot of time and work, then why didn't he start a year ago instead of now?

Harry Reid is just as culpable, I should mention in all fairness. The Senate has done exactly the same as the House on the issue all year -- nothing at all. Where is the grand plan from the House Republicans? Where is the bill from the Senate Democrats? Neither exists. Nobody has put a single word on paper, yet.

What's even more galling is the fact that Congress will still be taking whole weeks off between now and the end of the year. Because that is the one thing Congress excels at: taking vacations.

Both parties are guilty of a serious dereliction of duty. Both decided to blow off ten months of the year, because actually doing their job was so hard. Both entered into a pact to push the issue to the side so they could get busy on the work that is truly dearest to their hearts: getting re-elected. Voters certainly don't want to hear about tough choices and bad news, so let's all just agree not to talk about such things.

This is a disgrace, it is anti-democratic, and it needs to be fixed. California had similar problems with our politicians not doing their jobs. The annual budget used to be late every year, like clockwork. This resulted in such embarrassments as handing out "I.O.U.s" instead of paychecks to state workers -- sometimes for months on end.

We fixed the problem, out here. We passed a voter initiative that drew a red line: if the budget isn't done on time, legislators don't get paid. They are forbidden, if this happens, from awarding themselves back pay. You know what happened? The first year, they tried to fudge the issue by passing an empty "budget." The state refused to issue their paychecks. So they passed a real budget. Since then, I don't believe any budget has been more than a day or two late.

Quite simply, it worked. Problem solved.

Now I know it would be harder to enact such a law for the U.S. Congress. America does not have national "voter initiatives" on the ballot. So Congress itself would have to pass such a law, which will happen about two weeks after Hell freezes solid.

Unless the citizens make it a priority. If there were a nationwide shaming to pass a "No Work? No Pay!" law, and if people started getting voted out of office on the issue, perhaps it could indeed come to pass.

Because what we've got now is ridiculous. "We're just not going to work all year long, until after the election" should be completely unacceptable to all Americans -- no matter what you think should be done about the problem. A refusal to even work on a solution should be automatic grounds for dismissal. Or, at the very least, for the paychecks to stop.

This hasn't been the "Do-Nothing" Congress so much as it has been the "Can-Kicking" Congress. Every single "deal" that's happened has been nothing more than an effort to shove the problems down the road a few months, or a few years -- whatever they think they can get away with. Look for the answer to the fiscal cliff to be a big old kick in the can once again -- "the problem was too complex so we're going to make a deadline a few months/years from now, and that'll really force us to act! How many times are we going to let them get away with this? The upcoming deadline, if you'll remember, was put in place when the last deadline ran out... which was dictated by the deadline before that. Congress keeps right on selling the same horse manure wrapped in a different bow each time -- "we're really going to solve the problem next time around, when that big bad deadline hits, just trust us!"

So don't be surprised if all the Lucys in Congress pull the football away from Charlie Brown on Dec. 31 once again. The only real question is whether the can will be kicked one month down the road, three months down the road, six months down the road, or (if they think they can get away with it) a full year or more down the road.

The only difference will be what catchy name the media comes up with next time around to call the same old problem. Will it be "taxmageddon" or perhaps "the mother of all crises"? Because that's likely the only thing that'll change.


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