Looking at American legislators we might occasionally get the same feeling as when we observe Czech lawmakers, namely that they are a strange bunch wrapped up in their own little world. But in one matter American congressmen are better: In the end, they didn’t include an initial proposal to increase their own salaries as part of the package which averted a slide off the fiscal cliff at the eleventh hour last week. This is in contrast to Czech parliamentary deputies who, instead of speaking clearly and honestly about higher pay like any other employee who feels undervalued, helped themselves to higher income by other legislative means — in the current situation, by cancelling taxes on all subsidiary compensation. This is not to mention that the entire argument’s precariousness, which begins with how oddly these expenditures are spent, totally escapes them.
On the other hand, when we look at how many riders American congressmen have inserted into the tax law for the aversion of the fiscal cliff, it evokes a sympathetic smile. For instance, congressmen granted tax relief to the builders of NASCAR racetracks, and Hollywood can expect aid in the form of tax advantages for its film and television studios. Congress issued special support to the makers of electric bicycles and extended a tax exemption for investors in construction at ground zero in Lower Manhattan. More than 11 years after 9/11, it’s conspicuously targeted aid for Goldman Sachs, which is completing its new building there.
Maybe it wouldn’t all look so stupid if Congress, soon after it passed the legislation to save the American economy, hadn’t refused to approve aid money for the settlement of damages from Hurricane Sandy – just because, they say, the bill also contained grants for some projects which had nothing to do with the hurricane. This was true, but that sort of selective logic is in principle the same as the Czech lawmakers pretending to not raise salaries. In short, it’s all the same, whether in the U.S. or the Czech Republic, whether congressmen or deputies. They’re all rogues, lost in their labyrinths.
In one respect, however, Washington and Prague do differ. Parliamentary ramblings in the corridors of the Malá Strana district behind the bulwark of the Bohemian Basin hills don’t interest anyone, practically speaking. Events on Capitol Hill and its interactions with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, i.e. with the White House, are occasionally followed by the whole world. Even if politicians in Washington themselves may think that it is just their “American” business, and that the U.S. doesn’t have to answer to anyone for its internal politics, the image that American politics has transmitted to the world hasn’t been very pretty at all for the last several years.
As a matter of fact, in the context of the fiscal cliff, the Chinese news agency Xinhua wrote with gusto that the U.S. is a power in decline, that America is falling “into an abyss [it] can never come out of.” It should be a warning to Americans that this is becoming a widespread global feeling. In last year’s Pew Research Center study, people in 15 of the 20 countries surveyed, including Britain, Germany, France and Spain, said that China has already replaced the U.S. as world economic leader. That is not factually true of course but, as negotiations over the fiscal cliff have shown, Washington is doing everything for it to not only appear that way, but for it to become a reality as soon as possible. It’s very bad news, but financial and budgetary problems really are beginning to limit the economic power – and thereby the more general global influence – of the U.S.