Inching closer to Washington paralysis

Immediately after the recent midterm elections, David Letterman came up with perhaps the most succinct and apt analysis of where the country stood and what our prospects were down the road. “Democrats and Republicans will have to work together,” he said. “We’re screwed!”

Not that we lacked for graphic reminders of how difficult cooperation would be with the two parties controlling different areas of the Washington turf. We had already seen, well before midpoint of Obama’s turn at the helm, that cooperation had become something of an off-color term. Now, with Republicans having scored those gains in the House recently, the muscle flexing has already begun, here in the closing days of this Congress, as prelude to the “my way or no way” displays that are guaranteed to be an ongoing feature of the new Capitol Hill follies, beginning in January.

The debate they’ve been having over the Bush tax cuts should probably be seen as a window on how intractable the players are prepared to be when the new Congress shows up. For any among us who thought going to bat for the wealthy would politically be taboo, think again! Here were Republicans proudly standing up to insist that the Bush tax reduction gift to high rollers in the $250,000 plus per year bracket should also continue, alongside the permanent tax break being advocated by Democrats for middle income earners.

The experts are already telling us that the deficit reduction mantra to which Republicans/Tea Partiers are supposedly committed is mere sham, if there continues to be an insistence, simultaneously, on a permanent tax reduction for the affluent. The country has come to a confusing pass, which promises to get stranger still as the next round of presidential voting gets closer. The Tea Party phenomenon, which was said to be the wave ridden by many of the new members elected to the House, represents this ideological mix of small government, little or no taxes, little or no business regulation and social needs among the populace being met by other than governmental resources. The contradiction on the social front being that many of those eager to publicly identify with Tea Party sentiment are undoubtedly candidates for (or have already tapped into) such government safety nets as Medicare, Social Security and others.

It takes some bravado to condemn government’s concern with the “welfare” of the less privileged, while benefiting from one or more of those very entitlement programs. At the same time, we dare not forget the other factor driving Tea Party mojo. Witness the experience of Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist and others who were demonized for accepting stimulus funds from the Obama administration – funds earmarked to deliver some relief to states taking it on the chin. Something beyond ideological differences has to be framing that kind of political decision.

Added to which, perpetration of the canard that maintaining entitlements is where blame lies for the staggering federal deficit has, sadly, found resonance with a portion of the electorate for whom such a line fits snugly with a built-in, unflattering perception of an Obama-led government. In that climate, where common-sense considerations give way to unyielding, unconstructive opposition, one shouldn’t be dumfounded at any scarcity of traction for the idea that wealthy folk should ante up proportionately more in the way of taxes.

If in the current lame duck session we’re seeing the sort of posturing that signals no willingness to step outside of some rigid parameters, solely informed by political grandstanding, it doesn’t challenge the imagination much to figure what kind of strutting we’re in for when the great Tea Party surge barges into town. John Boehner, the speaker-to-be, couldn’t resist a reference to the Nov. 2 election in the process of dissing the Democrats’ attempt to exclude the rich from those permanent tax cuts. Not yet a House majority the Republicans are, but later for that. No need to delay the swagger.

The Washington players, in other words, seem good and primed for a game of chicken. How much of this the country will tolerate while consumed with trying to bounce back from an economic clobbering that has been no respecter of persons, we’ll find out soon enough. But should the current congressional class adjourn without an agreement on what form the tax cut legislation will take, we’ll have a pretty good sense of what to expect from January’s reconstituted membership. It should be particularly revealing in the House, where some GOP/Tea Party neophytes, armed with an imagined mandate to effect “radical change,” are probably destined to dwell in a realm untouched by reality for a good while yet.

In the new Senate, not having a majority doesn’t figure to stall the Republicans’ blocking tactics for action initiated on the other side. Minority leader Mitch McConnell has already indicated that maneuvering by his caucus will derail any attempts to pass the Democratic version of the tax cut bill. That’s what’s promised…for starters.

It sure looks like the Capitol Hill combatants are prepared to have the people’s judgment on their performance rendered on the basis of a public relations duel: Who emerges as less culpable than the other for whatever prolonged state of ugliness grips the nation’s seat of government.

Before too long, Letterman will quite likely not be the only one summing things up the way he did.

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