Congress Throws Tomatoes

The tomato is a fruit, unless extended to the form of tomato sauce on pizza, in which case it can be counted as a vegetable when served in American school cafeterias.

At least, that is what the United States Congress declared last week, after yielding to pressure from the frozen food industry that was lobbying against the new rules of the Obama administration to fight obesity among school children.

“I never lack material for my humor column when Congress is in session,” Will Rogers, the famous humorist, ironized at the beginning of the 20th century.

Before him, the writer Mark Twain said, speaking of those with seats in the Senate and House of Representatives: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”

The points made by Rogers and Twain show that the United States Congress has long incited derision. But today the bicameral legislature of the U.S. federal government has incited contempt unparalleled in modern history. Only 9 percent of Americans approve of it, according to a survey conducted last month on behalf of the New York Times and CBS News.

Congress is thus less popular than Paris Hilton (15 percent), BP during the 2010 oil spills, the oil and gas industries (20 percent), banks (23 percent), Richard Nixon during Watergate (24 percent), lawyers (29 percent), the airline industry (29 percent) and taxes (40 percent), according to various credible surveys collected by the Washington Post last week.

Impasse on the debt

Here is a small consolation: Congress is no more hated by Americans than Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (9 percent) and former dictator Fidel Castro (5 percent).

The propensity of Congress to submit to various lobbies, namely frozen pizza, is not the only cause of their current unpopularity. The inability of its members to overcome their partisan and ideological divisions is also a factor.

This inability was witnessed in a vivid and appalling way last summer, during the standoff around the raising of the debt ceiling — an inability that should again make the headlines this week while a bipartisan “super committee” has, in principle, until November 23 to find ways to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years, an amount to be added to the $917 billion in spending reductions already decided by the agreement made in August to raise the debt ceiling.

Bear in mind, this agreement was found to be so inadequate that Standard and Poors decided, for the first time in history, to downgrade the U.S.’ AAA debt rating.

But everything indicates that the “super committee,” created under the agreement in August and comprising 12 members (six Democrats and six Republicans), will not reach a consensus before Nov. 23.

This fall, like last summer, Republicans and Democrats are encountering the same pitfalls. Republicans oppose all debt reductions that involve an increase in taxes, while Democrats insist on a “balanced” approach that combines spending cuts and increases in tax revenues.

Rating Agencies Ready to Deal

If we trust the polls, Americans prefer the Democrats’ position, but the elected Republicans don’t seem to want to depart from that which has become for them dogma.

Without an understanding between members of the super committee, automatic cuts in military and health spending will be triggered, to the tune of $1.2 trillion.

Such an issue will not be as dramatic as the failure of negotiations would have been in August. Without an agreement on increasing the debt ceiling, the United States would no longer have had the means for borrowing to honor their commitments.

But rating agencies indicated that they would be closely following the work of the super committee to see if those elected to Congress are still able to come to an understanding on addressing the deficit. And they have not ruled out, in the case of deadlock, the possibility of a new relief for the American public debt that has passed $1.5 trillion since last Tuesday.

While waiting for the projected failure, David Letterman, heir of Will Rogers, could recycle one of the jokes inspired by the countdown last summer on raising the debt ceiling: “Congress is pledging to work around the clock until they’re absolutely certain they will get nothing done.”

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