Politics July/August 2013

The Do-Nothing Congress Has Done a Lot

Ideas of the Year 2013
Javier Jaén Benavides

Perhaps, like approximately 80 percent of Americans, you disapprove of Congress. Beholding the nation’s capital, you are apt to see a sleazy, gridlocked mess, a Boschian hellscape of partisan acrimony and special-interest greed. Ever since Republicans won the House of Representatives in 2010, President Obama’s policy agenda has ground to a halt, and hopes of addressing the nation’s pressing issues through federal legislation have been dashed.

But the ironic thing is that, by virtue of its very do-nothingness, the do-nothing Congress got a big thing done. First, in the fiscal-cliff deal struck around the new year, wealthy Americans’ income-tax rates went up, a policy change long sought by the president and his party. Then, in March, the budget ax known as sequestration fell, chopping $1 trillion from federal spending over the next decade—a cherished goal for fiscal conservatives.

More revenue plus less spending equals a lower deficit. A much lower one. Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, estimates that these changes, combined with the domestic-spending caps imposed by the 2011 debt-ceiling deal (and counting savings on interest), will reduce the deficit by $3.99 trillion through 2023. That’s enough to stabilize the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio, meaning that the debt will no longer be growing faster than the U.S. economy. In short, the deficit has been tamed.

That’s not to say Congress did it on purpose. The fiscal-cliff and sequestration changes were essentially automatic, forced on obstinate lawmakers by triggers and expiration dates that were built in to idiot-proof the legislative process. “The deficit is being reduced through a series of missed opportunities, nonsolutions, and bad policy,” Kogan says. “But the budget result, in aggregate, is not so bad.”

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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