‘Keystone Cops’ in Congress aren’t funny anymore

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Print this page by Robert Powell

I got a lesson in government budget deliberations in my first journalism job while working for a weekly newspaper in the Deep South.

The county clerk had drawn up a budget for the coming year and informed the three county commissioners that it would require a half-mill increase in the real estate tax.

After some deliberation, two of the commissioners voted for the tax increase but the third commissioner abstained. The clerk was incensed. “You sit right there and show me where I can cut the budget,” she told the holdout commissioner. In essence, she was making him stay after school for misbehaving.

While the clerk and hesitant commissioner went through the budget page by page, the other two wandered off to eat lunch and tend to other chores. By midafternoon, they returned to the courthouse to find the clerk and their beleaguered colleague still combing through the budget.

The sight must have caused a change of heart. The commission chairman, who had voted for the tax increase, told the others, “You know, we don’t have to do this right now. Let’s wait awhile.” So more than four hours after the official commission meeting had ended and the press had departed, the commissioners decided to rescind their vote and table consideration of the budget. They didn’t bother to call anyone to announce the change.

The next day, my story about the tax increase came out. The commission chairman told the region’s daily newspaper I was a liar. “We didn’t do any such thing,” he said.

I chalked up such “Keystone Cops” antics as small-town politics. Boy, was I wrong.

In the past six months, we have watched members of Congress bring us to the brink of economic disaster before approving an increase in the debt ceiling. The deal was based on the creation of a 12-member “super committee” charged with agreeing on at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts or else automatic across-the-board cuts would take effect starting in 2013.

Standard & Poors was so unimpressed with the debt ceiling deal that it promptly lowered the government’s bond rating, sending the stock market into a tailspin. It turns out, S&P’s skepticism was well-founded. The super committee failed to reach an agreement, providing one more piece of evidence that our political system is totally dysfunctional.

Half of the automatic cuts will fall on the Defense Department, a development that will “hollow out” the U.S. military, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The cuts follow a $450 billion reduction in defense spending that already is scheduled to take effect. 

The cuts also could have a devastating effect on Virginia’s economy. Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, says they would lead to more than a million job losses nationwide, with nearly 123,000 jobs lost in Virginia.

Two areas that have been beneficiaries of defense spending in the past will be hit hardest. Northern Virginia would lose 92,691 jobs and $7.96 billion in gross regional product, while Hampton Roads would lose 20,785 jobs and $1.78 billion. “Virginia is right at the top for being vulnerable,” Fuller says.

The potential effects of budget reductions already are being factored into assessments of Virginia’s competitiveness with other states in attracting new employers.  Virginia owned the top spot in Forbes.com’s annual list of the best states for business for four years before slipping to second behind Utah last year. In the latest list, released in late November, the commonwealth was again No. 2.

The one thing keeping Virginia from regaining the No. 1 position is doubt about its economic outlook. “As fiscal screws tighten, it is going to be more difficult for Virginia to maintain the growth rates and success it has had in the past,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, which contributed data used in the ranking.

When the super committee gave up, no one was surprised by its failure. But that doesn’t mean people don’t care.

A Gallup poll released in early December found that 75 percent of voters surveyed say most members of Congress should be turned out of office. That’s the highest percentage Gallup has seen since 1993, the year before Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years in a Democratic bloodbath.

Just before the super committee admitted failure, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner had a few words of advice for voters during a visit to Norfolk.  The senator, a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Six” that tried to broker a deal during the debt ceiling crisis, had recommended the super committee “be bold,” looking for cuts beyond $1.2 trillion.  “If we can’t get this fixed, you’ve got to fire us all. I’m serious,” he told the Virginia Women’s Conference.

Keep that advice in mind as the election approaches next November. When you see the notation “(i)” next to a candidate’s name, you could read it one of two ways: “incumbent” or “incompetent.” 

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