By Nick DAngelo
My great love of country music is well known, and among the great female vocalists of the genre is surely Lee Ann Womack, who released the song “Never Again, Again” in March 1997. Peaking on the country charts in the Top 25, the song was criticized for being “too country,” reminiscent of the more traditional style of the 1960s and 1970s.
Regardless of these mixed reviews though, the song’s message was simple: Sometimes people cannot help making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s a lesson we observe every day in Congress, especially during these debt ceiling debates, which seem to be occurring with greater frequency.
In the United States, our government operates with a “debt ceiling,” a legislative maneuver that attempts to limit the amount of debt appropriated. The true meaning of the debt ceiling is lost though, because it never truly matters.
Our Congress simply raises the limit to be spent, ignoring the initial purpose of instituting a ceiling at all. It’s like when we students disable Facebook on our computers in order to avoid distractions during Finals Week — we always have the password to override the disable, so it really makes no difference.
The problem is not only that increasing the debt ceiling every few months has become a regular habit, but it is also the manner in which our Congress insists on doing it.
When the government shut down earlier this month, many asked me if I was worried. As I was quoted saying in last week’s World Opinions article, the shutdown really did not affect me that much: I still received my student loans, my mail and my paycheck. Only if it had been more prolonged would the damage have truly reached me. When the debt ceiling debate was attached to the shutdown dilemma, I was still questioned. “Aren’t you worried?” Of course I wasn’t. There will be a “Midnight Deal,” I predicted. There is always a midnight deal.
And true to form, Congress waited until the very last day to come together, smiling and shaking hands, as if they had achieved something truly worth celebrating. Speaking with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News the day after the shutdown ended, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, apologized to the American people. “I get people back home saying, ‘Joe, you don’t know how bad this looks.’” Senator Manchin said, “I say, ‘If you think it’s ugly from your living room, you ought to try it from my seat. It’s really bad.’”
Senator Manchin is right. It is really bad. At some level, hyper-partisanship, the inability to effectively communicate, is to blame. Time magazine wrote that despite all the bickering, at least a few senators were trying to find a solution. Jay Newton-Small, Time Washington correspondent, said that “In a time when all the attention that we pay is to the fringes, people who are willing to scream the loudest and throw the biggest bombs, it was the very quiet work of a group of moderates” that made the difference.
These moderates, Democrats and Republicans, were led by the “Moderate from Maine” herself, Senator Susan Collins, who sat and watched from her floor seat in the U.S. Senate two weeks ago and said simply, “This is ridiculous.” She wrote three simple goals down: (1) Reopen and fund the government, (2) Fix details of Obamacare and (3) Raise the debt ceiling. Collins then left the floor and spent the next week actually crafting a plan instead of just blaming everyone else.
While the Democratic leadership did not approve Senator Collins’s plan because it allowed minor delays in some portions of the Affordable Care Act; necessary for Republican votes, it became the foundation of the deal that was ultimately accepted. Within days of Collins’s solo mission though, the government was reopened and the debt ceiling was raised.
Reasonable voices matter and it has taught us some good lessons. One very clear lesson is that popular firebrands are usually not effective legislators. Two, moderates are not bad. And three, compromise is almost always both necessary and acceptable. But we shouldn’t expect any changes in how our government operates anytime soon.
In the aftermath, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to forever avoid future government shutdowns. Majority Leader Harry Reid implied that the Senate would cooperate better in the future. And I don’t believe a word of any of it. As Womack sings, “And just like it’s always been, I’ll say never again, again.” 3