Americans are frustrated, and our leaders are not listening. It has been an awful two years since the economy tanked due to the sub-prime mortgage debacle, and Americans are holding incumbent legislators of both parties accountable. Already a record number of sitting U.S. senators have lost their primaries. The congressional incumbent's traditional 98 percent reelection rate is unlikely to hold this November.
Our national mood is sullen, backed by some real cause.
Our nation faces a crushing debt and tough economy. We are embroiled in two wars (yes, we are still in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and changing the name doesn't change the game). We have thousands of pages of hastily passed laws that our legislators concede they never read. We have bailouts, a first-time home buyers tax credit, "cash for clunkers," and legislation passed as "deficit neutral" despite all common sense and data to the contrary. (The White House website still says the health care bill will lower the deficit despite a $100 billion correction of this assertion after the bill's passage by the Congressional Budget Office and other assumptions quickly being proven wrong.)
Leaders in both political parties have demanded party-line loyalty in voting to an extreme never before seen in America. It used to be nation first, district or state second, and third would be party support (but not loyalty on every vote). Now it's party first and above all. Those that stray on even one vote are punished. Utah Republicans threw out Senator Bennett in the summer primary for his efforts to seek middle ground on energy policy. Democrats have challenged several sitting members in primaries if they voted against health care or opposed the potential union tyranny of card check.
The "party before nation" atmosphere has made discussion of tough issues facing our nation impossible. Our crushing and growing debt requires a national debate on priorities. We are at the point where any rational government must engage in triage. Yet, that debate has yet to occur. Anyone who attempts it is hammered down.
One lone Republican, Congressman Paul Ryan (R- WI), raised the issue of the growing deficit and proposed some modest solutions. Although a few Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) initially praised the effort, Speaker Pelosi demonized the Ryan ideas early this week as an attempt by Republicans to "drastically privatize and cut Social Security and eliminate Medicare as we know it." A spokesman for House Minority Leader Eric Cantor responded appropriately: "We've got to have a serious conversation in this country about the promises made to people."
Our nation is not hurting from a lack of ideas -- but rather from a predictable partisan attack on any idea that can be labeled negatively. For example, a quick no-cost economic stimulator would be to allow U.S. companies to return to the U.S. economy money they made abroad on which they already paid taxes to another country. Democrats would label this a "corporate bailout" despite the fact that the United States is one of the few developed countries that insists on double taxation and thus hurts American companies and banks. Even though President Clinton stimulated the economy by allowing this type of moratorium, Democrats won't even consider it today.
Similarly, Democrats have not even had a serious discussion of why we are still funding the Afghanistan war. They know to do so is to risk being labeled as "soft" on defense, which is only a step below being called "unpatriotic." Thus, the war rages on, Americans die, and we support corrupt foreign governments. The same thing could be said for the war on drugs: costly, unwinnable and no longer affordable, yet a national priority. We all know it's irrational, but we don't even discuss it.
Perhaps this is the election where Americans will say "enough already." We hire or elect political leaders to make decisions among competing options based on facts and real debate. We can no longer afford to say "yes" to everything. That requires a real discussion with real facts.
Let's hope Washington changes in November. Not just the parties, or the faces, but a commitment to make tough decisions for the betterment of the nation, rather than for the good of any political party.
Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents more than 2,000 U.S. technology companies.