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Irresponsible Congress dragging U.S. economy down

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Not long ago, Congress could have been dismissed as a minor irritant.

But clearly it has grown into something worse, comparable, perhaps, to a belligerent foreign nation. Its irresponsible conduct is dragging down economic growth and undermining America's standing in the world.

In 2011, it wreaked havoc on public confidence with its debt-ceiling donnybrook. By threatening to renege on debt the U.S. had promised to pay, it caused the U.S. credit rating to drop and injured American credibility more broadly.

In 2012, it repeated its abdication of responsibility by failing to find a long-term deficit fix. The budget deal passed Tuesday, as necessary as it might have been, barely qualified as a stopgap measure. It did not address spending, or raise the debt limit. And it only pushed back the next "fiscal cliff" deadline by a couple of months.

As Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) aptly put it, "Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress."

What to do?

The dysfunctionality of Congress results primarily from one simple fact: Too many lawmakers -- particularly those in the House of Representatives -- no longer worry about general elections, and therefore the national good. They are only concerned that well-funded primary opponents will challenge them for not being ideologically pure enough.

That is because most state legislatures draw congressional districts lines to guarantee success for one party or the other. Only a few dozen of the 435 House seats are up for grabs in a typical November. It is also because of the growing power of purity-enforcement groups and wealthy individuals who think nothing of dropping millions on television advertisements attacking an incumbent for being too centrist.

The result is not pretty. Republicans threaten to force a default on the Treasury if they don't get their way. Democrats, meanwhile, refuse even modest restraints on the growth of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

This behaviour will have to change for Congress to restore its ability to act in the broad national interest.

The obvious place to start is with the congressional districts.

A few states, most recently California, have taken politics out of redistricting by handing the task to a bipartisan commission instead of the legislature. The state, which had seen hardly any involuntary turnover in the past two decades, elected 14 new members this year, the first in which new districts were drawn by a commission. That's more than 26 per cent of its 53-member delegation.

Five states, starting with Iowa in 1981, created panels to advise legislatures on redistricting. Six others have done better by giving commissions the final say. If others opted for this approach, more representatives would come from politically diverse districts and would reposition themselves in the political centre.

Money is another obvious issue. Recent Supreme Court rulings, most notably the Citizens United v. FEC, have allowed unlimited and often anonymous money to pour into congressional races. Since the court has equated money with free speech, limits on how much can be spent are unlikely to pass muster. But Congress could at least force greater disclosure of where the money is coming from. A lawmaker would be less likely to live in fear of a primary challenger if he or she can show voters that a single billionaire or special-interest group is behind that challenger.

The final thing that has to happen is unique to the Republican party. It has to get over being satisfied with being an insurgent opposition party. It has to become a party that wants to -- and can -- win the White House on a consistent basis.

Its harsh partisanship and reliance on motivating a base that is shrinking relative to the electorate might be a good way to win down-ballot races. But if the party wants the big prize, it will have to reposition itself as a party that knows how to govern, can get things done, and isn't above reaching deals with Democrats.

The biggest shift, however, might have to come from the public. They will have to force change by making it clear that the behaviour of 2011 and 2012 is simply not acceptable.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2013 A15

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