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By Klein, Ezra | Newsweek, April 5, 2010 | Go to article overview

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Klein, Ezra, Newsweek


Byline: Ezra Klein

Don't be Fooled: Congress Still Needs Fixing.

In the months leading up to the health-care-reform vote, there was much talk that Congress is broken and serious reform is necessary. Some would say the bill's passage is a decisive refutation of that position. They are wrong.

What we have learned instead is that even in those rare moments when bold action should be easy, little can be done. Consider the position of the Democrats over the last year: a popular new president, the largest majority either party has held in the Senate since the post-Watergate wave, a 40-seat majority in the House, and a financial crisis. Congress has managed to pass a lot of legislation, and some of it has been historic. But our financial system is not fixed and our health-care problems are not solved. Indeed, when it comes to the toughest decisions Congress must make, our representatives have passed them off to some other body or some future generation.

The architects of the health-care-reform bill, for instance, couldn't bring themselves to propose the difficult reforms necessary to ensure the solvency of Medicare--and the government. So they created an independent panel of experts to do it for them. The recommendations of the panel would take the fast track through Congress, protected from not just the filibuster but even from revision. In fact, if Congress didn't vote on them, they'd still become law. This independent commission is a "game changer," says Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget. The game being changed is the legislative process.

Cap-and-trade, meanwhile, is floundering in the Senate. In the event that it dies, the Environmental Protection Agency has been preparing to regulate carbon on its own. Some senators would like to block the EPA from doing so, and may yet succeed. However, those in Congress who want to avert catastrophic climate change, but who don't believe they can pass legislation to help do so, are counting on the EPA to act in their stead.

Some might argue that the congressional response to the financial meltdown was a model of quick action. TARP had its problems, and the stimulus was too small, but both passed--and quickly. But when it became clear that these measures weren't sufficient, Congress was unable to muster further action. So the Federal Reserve, in consultation with congressional leaders, took over and released more than a trillion dollars into the marketplace. It was still the American people's money being spent, but it didn't need 60 votes in the Senate.

Then there's the national debt and deficits. Congress was reticent to do more about the financial crisis because of concerns over profligate government spending. But even on this crucial issue, Congress cannot seem to act. Sens. Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg lead the Budget Committee, and they called for a deficit commission to bypass their committee--and all other committees--in order to operate outside the normal legislative structure. "Some have argued that House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over health, retirement and revenue issues should individually take up legislation to address the imbalance," they wrote in a joint op-ed in The Hill. "But that path will never work. The inability of the regular legislative process to meaningfully act on this couldn't be clearer." They were more right than they knew: their proposal was defeated by a filibuster, and the president formed a deficit commission by executive order instead--a commission that will only be able to recommend solutions, not pass them into law.

This is not a picture of a functioning legislature.

Some might throw up their hands and welcome the arrival of outside cavalries, of rule by commissions and central banks and executive agencies. Others may believe that less action is good action--that gridlock prevents those in power from acting too boldly, and checks the growth and ambitions of government. …

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