Cliff notes: The fiscal crisis shows how far our government and society have fallen

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Even the presence of a lively 6-year-old granddaughter in the household, playing Christmas songs on the piano and jumping on our bed in the morning couldn't entirely free me from despair at the failure and corruption America's governing institutions revealed in the past few days.

Apart from whatever President Barack Obama is supposed to do to deal with these problems, the cold dead hands of Senate majority and minority leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell and House speaker and minority leader John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi may signal just how far we have fallen as a government and as a society to end up with such leaders. The worst thing about them may be that they seem unable to lead.

None of this is an accident. The American people are fully complicit in what is going on. One of the reasons these people remain in power is because we continue to vote them back into office. Some of that is due to the fact that we have permitted our electoral districts -- apart from the states, which we inherited -- to be gerrymandered to the point that few if any of these so-called representatives has to fear for his seat in Congress. Retaining them is the heart's desire of most of them -- not, working for the best interests of their people -- and that is not surprising, given all the benefits that go with membership in that club.

The issues they are ducking are breathtaking in number and scope. The most obvious one is responsible overall fiscal management of the country. How they could have let the government get to the edge of the fiscal cliff, which they designed themselves to try to force themselves to act -- astonishing in its own right -- is truly remarkable. I have not thought that going over it -- raising taxes, cutting government expenditures -- would be the end of the world, but we could have easily done without the drama.

I also think that creating the drama was partly deliberate on the part of the White House and the Congress, giving Wall Street a chance to make money through the fees they collect on the buying and selling that accompanies economic and financial drama.

If we get past the fiscal cliff, the next opportunity the White House and the Congress will be given to muff will be the debt limit. The U.S. government acts like a quarterback who welcomes a two-minute-warning situation so he can throw an interception. The debt limit presents me with philosophical problems. On the one hand, I would like to see America's national debt stop climbing higher in the 14 digits. Logic would suggest that the Congress should have a bridle on the White House's ability to incur more debt.

It is, in fact, silly to some extent for the government to have to spend from month to month like the rest of us. On the other hand, when one says "Congress," that means 535 geniuses like Messrs. Reid, McConnell and Boehner and Ms. Pelosi. I wouldn't lend any one of them my American Express card.

At the same time as the country faces these allegedly Armageddon-type decisions on cutting governmental spending, both the House and the Senate have passed budgets for the Department of Defense that are higher than the White House asked for. Again, what is going on? Have these people been into the newly legal West Coast marijuana? The House on Dec. 20 passed by 315-107 a $633 billion defense bill for next year that was $1.7 billion more than Mr. Obama requested. The Senate matched House irresponsibility the next day, voting 81-14.

Mr. Obama has threatened a veto, but he normally does not have the courage to do that. A prime example was the so-called Magnitsky Act, which led Russia to ban adoptions of Russian orphans by American families. Mr. Obama could see that "cause and effect" coming a mile off, but didn't have the nerve to veto the ill-conceived American law that will lead only to unadopted, needy Russian orphans and frustrated, saddened would-be American parents.

Why did the Congress pass the fat defense budget? Part of it may be that they are afraid not to in the face of heavy Pentagon lobbying for its programs, in spite of the ending of the Iraq war, the winding down of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and the military's inability so far to find another attractive war to substitute for Iraq and Afghanistan, in Syria, Mali, or the Pacific "rocks."

The second reason is that the military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about in 1961 has carefully sprinkled military and weapons-manufacturing facilities throughout the states and congressional districts, giving each member of Congress a dog in the fight to keep the military money flowing in abundance. Never mind if we have to cut education, Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security to fund the military's endless needs.

The other issue that Americans are still waiting for the Congress to address is gun control, or gun control and mental health if one sees them as two ends of the same snake. The National Rifle Association is waiting either for the Newtown massacre of our children to blow over, or for Americans to accept its loopy logic that we need armed guards in every school, thus increasing the sale of guns. A law re-banning assault weapons, minus the loopholes that marred the 1994 version, is already crafted and ready to go, prepared by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Instead of just passing it, showing the American people that they are capable of responding to national tragedy, the Congress so far has joined the NRA in waiting to see if we forget about the 20 little coffins and those of the schoolteachers and administrators.

The reason they do that is, first, that it is another major problem they might be able to get away with not addressing. Second reason, they might be physically afraid of the gun nuts in their constituencies. Third reason, they may be the recipients of nice fat campaign contributions from the gun lobby or companies that manufacture guns. Or maybe they're just lazy and useless.

For the fiscal hijinks, the Pentagon budget and their lack of action on gun control, they deserve to be despised and replaced -- if we can still get rid of them with the walls they have built around themselves.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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