Legislative gridlock, which was already bad enough, has devolved into a cynical, poisoned stasis. With a few obvious votes, Congress could improve the lives of millions of people — the unemployed, the undocumented, the uninsured. But instead of being helped, those in need are punished for reasons that are nakedly political.
It says a lot about this shameful state of affairs that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., one of the most powerful and savvy officials in Washington, had to put his career on the line to win an increase in the federal debt ceiling. Failure to act would have caused a catastrophic default. No new government spending was involved; rather, the Treasury simply needed to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. Raising the limit was a no-brainer.
Yet Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who continues to redefine the word “shameless,” almost led the nation into calamity by forcing Republican senators to go on record in favor of the increase. Since the GOP base has been told — wrongly — that refusing to hike the ceiling would somehow help get the debt under control, senators who voted to do the right thing risked a tea party challenge.
McConnell, who already faces a tough primary contest, sucked it up and did his duty. Cruz grinned and smirked during the vote, then presumably made preparations to receive a flood of tea party campaign cash for his anticipated presidential run.
At least Congress managed to avoid inflicting grievous harm on the entire nation. A number of subgroups are not so fortunate.
The Americans most obviously suffering because of the unwillingness of Congress to do the right thing are the 1.7 million jobless workers who have lost their long-term unemployment benefits.
Democrats keep proposing legislation to extend those benefits, as has regularly been done in tough economic times. Republicans say they agree but insist — contrary to common practice — that the extension be paid for with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Again, Republicans are wary of angering the party’s conservative base. It’s not so much a matter of increasing the deficit — a three-month extension would cost only $6 billion, and Democrats have proposed offsets — but that far-right dogma considers such payments a moral hazard that encourages idleness. Never mind that recipients of unemployment benefits, by definition, were employed until relatively recently and can demonstrate that they are actively looking for jobs.
The working poor are suffering unnecessarily as well. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 is far too low. In the past, Republicans have joined Democrats in voting for needed increases. In an election year, however, struggling wage-earners are out of luck.
The 11 million men, women and children who are in this country without documents are also victims of the calendar. President Obama and the entire congressional leadership agree that there is an urgent need for immigration reform.
The Senate has already passed a comprehensive bill that increases border security and offers the undocumented a path toward citizenship. Many observers believe there are enough votes in the House to pass the Senate bill and send it to Obama for his signature. But because of the looming election, that proposition isn’t being tested.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would face a revolt in the conservative GOP caucus if he allowed a comprehensive immigration bill to be passed by Democrats and a few moderate Republicans. Boehner has established the precedent that he can use this maneuver to avert certain disaster — it’s how he got a “clean” debt ceiling increase through the House. But his members will not abide being painted as “soft on immigration” in an election year.
Also unfairly punished are the millions of uninsured Americans seeking coverage through the Affordable Care Act. Despite the Republican Party’s best efforts, Obamacare is working. But it would work better if Congress would cooperate with Obama in making a host of technical adjustments to the program.
This sort of after-the-fact tinkering has been required for every big social program. But Republicans have so demonized Obamacare that collaborating in an effort to make it function more effectively would be, for the far-right base, tantamount to treason.
It’s one thing to seek an advantage at the polls. It’s another thing to make innocent people suffer for your ambition. Guilty members of Congress — and I’m specifically including you, Sen. Cruz — should hang their heads in disgrace.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.
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