Lost hopes and broken dreams: these seem to be the recurring themes with Congress nowadays. I’m sure most of you remember what happened back in August with the federal budget; if not, here’s a brief recap.
The United States government needs money in order to provide the many services that its citizens rely on. Thanks to us, the taxpayers, it’s able to fund its day-to-day operations and services, which include maintaining the public transportation systems, funding the many departments of the federal government, and keeping Social Security alive and well. The aggregate income that the federal government has is called, predictably, the annual federal income.
Now comes the fun part: spending all the hard-earned money. The combined annual federal spending and expenditures that include, but aren’t limited to, the aforementioned public services are called annual federal spending. Seeing as this is MIT, let’s do a little math. If annual federal income is greater than annual federal spending, we have what is called a surplus, which means that not all of the money collected on taxes got spent by the federal government, easing the following year’s budget concerns. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a federal surplus since President Clinton held office. Instead, the situation since President George W. Bush has been the reverse, meaning that the federal government has been spending more money than it was collecting on taxes. This is called a deficit.
So how does Joe Sixpack pay for something when he doesn’t have enough cash in his pocket? He pulls out his trusty (insert brand name here) credit card and charges the balance to the old Platinum. In essence, that is exactly what the federal government did for the duration of the last decade: they borrowed money to pay off the deficit and accumulated debt. The problem with using a credit card, however, is that if Joe uses it too often, he’ll eventually hit his card spending limit and will no longer be able to use it until he pays off his balance, or at least the card minimum. If the unthinkable happens and Joe doesn’t pay up when his balance is due, he defaults on his debt and gets his credit rating slashed by the three rating agencies. In this instance, Joe finds himself in a difficult situation, where he neither has the sufficient funds to purchase anything nor can he borrow from the bank. Sadly, this is also exactly what happened this past summer when the federal government reached its borrowing limit, known as the debt ceiling. Unable to borrow and short of cash, the federal government came uncomfortably close to defaulting on its debt, something that has never happened in U.S. history.
With hours to spare, Congress came up with a brilliant plan that would increase the debt ceiling and get rid of the deficit in about a decade. However, they didn’t take appropriate measures to quickly reduce the deficit and settle the situation then and there. Instead, they came up with an ingenious plan to create yet another useless joint subcommittee within Congress and gave it a very hipster name, the Joint Supercommittee on Deficit Reduction. This Supercommittee, comprised of 12 members of Congress (six Democrats and six Republicans), was charged with figuring out how to reduce the federal deficit by more than a trillion dollars. Failure to do so would result in automatic spending cuts of about $1.2 trillion, with the largest budget cuts being made in the Department of Defense, education, housing, and others.
Now, I don’t want to judge, but I really think that the American public is onto something, what with Congress’s eight percent approval rating. If these people can’t sit down and agree to anything because of their political ideologies and useless dogmas, why are they even there? What’s the use of opposing views if they never come together in a meaningful way? I really want to know if the members of Congress actually think of themselves as good negotiators, because if they do, let me define the word negotiation: “mutual discussion and arrangement of the terms of an agreement.” Saying that you don’t want any taxes or that spending cuts are nonnegotiable is not negotiating. Just like Europe, America has to take difficult but significant austerity measures to reduce its huge federal deficit.
It’s important to understand that a polarized Congress will always have a very hard time coming up with any meaningful decisions. It’s therefore very important that the members of Congress be competent, knowledgeable, open to dialogue, and willing to negotiate. If any readers would like to see firsthand how frustrating a polarized Congress truly is, they are cordially invited to attend the simulation of Congress that will take place on Monday, Dec. 5 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in 3-370. This experiment will be conducted as a part of 17.20 (Intro: American Political Process). In this simulation, students will take up the roles of Congressional figures, interest groups, and notable executives to try to pass legislation. By sitting in on the simulations, attendees will experience how truly convoluted, annoying, and frustrating the legislative process can get.
“There are three goals that I hope our 17.20 American government simulation will accomplish: First, I want students to experience how politics and policies come together as part of the American political process. The simulation is designed to serve as a lab in which students can experience firsthand the many challenges and opportunities involved in this process. Second, I want students to apply some of the theoretical political science material they have learned over the course of the semester to some real-life issues facing American politics today. Third, since this is a CI-H class, I want students to get a strong foundation not only in effective written communication, but also in persuasive oral communication, both one-on-one and in a large group setting. Politics is messy and complicated, but it also can be incredibly rewarding and inspiring. I hope that our class simulation will make that evident in a way that no textbook or scholarly work can,” said Carlos E. Diaz-Rosillo, the 17.20 professor.
I truly hope that Congress will get its act together soon and start making the hard choices that this country desperately needs. If not, we can always look forward to the elections next year.