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die Welt, Germany

Contempt for America’s
Unpopular Elected Officials

By Uwe Schmitt

The swearing in of the 113th Congress will show more women and more ethnic minorities joining the legislative body than ever before. But public opinion of Congress is still catastrophic.

Translated By Ron Argentati

4 January 2013

Edited by Gillian Palmer

Germany - die Welt - Original Article (German)

Representatives' grandchildren playing in the halls of the Capitol; a senator who recently suffered a stroke being helped up the stairs and finally sinking into Joe Biden's arms; a Democratic double amputee confidently wearing red pumps on her prostheses: There was no lack of hope-filled images at the swearing in of the 113th Congress.

More women and more members of ethnic minority groups were elected to Congress in 2012 than at any time in U.S. history; for the first time white males are a minority in the Democratic faction. The first black senator in a long time, a Buddhist, the first Hindu and the first openly acknowledged homosexual elected to the Senate all mirror an America undergoing change.

A Farewell with Insults

So much for the good news that pleases everyone who cheers for U.S. democracy. The bad news is that the departing 112th Congress was given a farewell of unprecedented insults in the media. “Clowns,” “Idiots,” “Morons,” “Embarrassing.” Usually serious commentators have used these terms to describe departing members, especially in the House of Representatives, where ideological rigidity and an unwillingness to get the job done seemingly broke all records for betraying the trust of the voters.

Virtually nothing was accomplished. In the Senate, a bill approved to rescue the decaying U.S. postal system never even made it to a vote. In contrast, the Republican-dominated House managed to vote 33 times on a bill to do away with the health care reforms they call “Obamacare.” That went nowhere because Democrats still hold a majority in the Senate. Contempt for Congress led to the lowest opinion poll numbers ever: America's congressmen are disliked more than used car dealers, lawyers and even journalists.

Boehner Promises to Be More Resolute in Battle

Through all the back-slapping friendliness of the first day, the old battle lines between the parties made a reappearance. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, made the announcement that his faction would resume its fight against government debt and waste.
Boehner was left in the lurch by his colleagues more than once, most recently in his negotiations with President Obama to avoid going over the fiscal cliff. The Speaker — well-liked but not feared — was renamed to his post by a thin margin: Boehner got 220 votes while Democrat Nancy Pelosi got 192.

That almost amounted to a hidden vote of no confidence for the man from Ohio. He's more a moderate conservative with whom one can reason and who is thus threatened with extinction in his own party these days. It sounded like a desperate threat when, in his second acceptance speech, he warned the rebels in his party, “So if you have come here to see your name in lights or to pass off political victory as accomplishment, you have come to the wrong place. The door is behind you.”

Nancy Pelosi Appears Unchallenged

Whereas Boehner can't even count on the loyalty of his deputy Eric Cantor, Nancy Pelosi, the liberal Democrat from San Francisco, appears unchallenged in her faction at present. She handed the speaker's gavel over to Boehner with the words, “I hope with all my heart that we will find common ground that is a higher, better place for our country.” She then added, “Surely we can be touched by the better angels of our nature.”

No one is more hated by right wing Republicans than Nancy Pelosi. But even her detractors have to admit that she has attracted determined and capable women into Democratic politics since her election 23 years ago. At that time there were 23 female Democrats in the House; today, 61 of the 81 women there belong to her party.

As Pelosi stood on the steps of the Capitol in all her power, Tammy Duckworth, the Iraq veteran so terribly wounded in battle, had the place of honor beside her. The Democrats understood the national demographic changes far earlier than did their Republican counterparts, as their November 6 victory proved.

The Next Call to Battle

Some are counting on a woman's greater capacity for understanding. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri says, “I think by nature we are less confrontational and more collaborative. All of us not only want to work in a bipartisan way, we do it." She added it was important to find common ground where lawmakers might not get everything they wanted, but at least could accomplish some things.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell already announced the next battle, saying the president would get a spending fight “whether he wants it or not.” McConnell expressed reluctance to approve a debt ceiling increase unless it was accompanied by dramatic spending cuts to social programs. Barack Obama had already stated that such reductions would not be a part of the debt ceiling debate.

The plunge over the fiscal cliff — an artificial device invented by Congress itself in order to ensure action — that was so narrowly averted just days earlier apparently failed to bring about a willingness to compromise. The prospects for the ability to work together are no better for the 113th Congress than it was for the 112th.

A Dangerous Loss of Reputation

It's a dangerous development when Washington is condemned as a caricature, a disinterested, hated, tax-gobbling monster. Compromise, absolutely essential to the American system of checks and balances in order for government to function, is considered by the extremists of both parties — but above all by the Tea Party faction among Republicans — to be capitulation and betrayal.

Redistricting increasingly ensures that only one political party can win elections to the House of Representatives and threatens candidates with more “ideologically pure” opponents. In the Senate, where the district is the entire state, there remains a semblance of bi-partisan collegiality. On the down side, the unfortunate Senate “filibuster” rule results in a 60-vote majority instead of the usual 51-vote mark as the minimum necessary for passage of contentious matters.

May Heaven grant the 113th Congress enough insight to get the job done.



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