The Congress We Deserve

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The legislative branch's failures extend far beyond the debt debate

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They failed to do their homework but got to go out and play. They failed to complete their job assignments but got to leave work early. They didn't eat their vegetables but got dessert. Our lawmakers utterly failed to help solve the nation's major problems-- from meaningful debt and deficit reduction to job growth to judicial appointments-- before scampering away last week for their summer vacations. Why we tolerate from our politicians what we won't from ourselves is both inexplicable and self-explanatory; we have the government we deserve, don't we?

Recent polls may reveal that American disapproval with Congress is at an all-time high. But we all know how this is going to end; the vast majority of these walking-talking-preaching-leeching failures will be reelected next November. Fueled by unfettered campaign money, the incumbents will innundate voters with attack ads that will scare people into thinking that, somehow, the alternative is even worse than the reality. And we'll slide along for another two years, at least, without squarely facing our problems no matter who is in the White House in 2013.

A third party? Please. Who's going to be on the top of the ticket? As Yogi Berra might say, "if independents aren't going to support Sarah Palin there's no way you can stop them." Michael Bloomberg? His courageous conduct over the issue of same-sex marriage in New York tells us he's no longer considering a national run. Ralph Nader? He was right about the perils of American corporatism but his time has passed. About the only person who could run and win as a third-party candidate is the only free adult citizen in America who cannot by law win the presidency in the election of Novembver 2012. That man is Bill Clinton.

When Standard & Poor's downgraded America's credit rating Friday evening it was merely calling bullshit on the lame debt and deficit deal the Congress and the White House have just made. It was doing what maybe 200 million Americans have done in the privacy of their homes over the past few months as the "debt ceiling crisis" played out to the detriment of the unemployment crisis. The gall of the Treasury Department to blame the credit agency for a "math error"-- as if our mountain of deficit did not otherwise exist. And the gall of Washington to put us all through the drama without coming up with a courageous, long-term solution.

Let's put aside just for the moment the economic catastrophe at hand. On my beat, the law beat, here's another example of the gross negligence of the legislative branch. As the lawmakers jetted off for their holidays, there were 88 judicial vacancies left unfilled across the United States, including 69 on the federal trial bench where the bulk of federal law is handled. This is so despite the fact that the Obama Administration currently has 53 men and women in nomination for posts. Twenty of those bright people were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and are waiting for a floor vote. Seventeen of those were unanimously endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Take a look at this chart for a better sense of the scope of this completely unnecessary problem: 

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 Obama, the constitutional scholar, is far behind both Clinton and Bush when it comes to getting his judicial nominees appointed. And in the past few weeks? While Congress was voting on which post offices to name-- surely one of the most pathetic gestures ever offered by this generation of lawmakers-- the judicial nominees were languishing on hold. Not because they aren't worthy. Not because they lack bipartisan support. But because of the threat of a Republican filibuster, a way for politicians to justify their partisan choices in the guise of arcane legislative rules. All over the country there are "judicial emergencies" brought on by the nation's empty benches. And yet the Senate does nothing. No wonder the people at People for the American Way pitched the idea last week of confirming these "consensus" judges by "unanimous consent."

Failure to confirm judges who are strongly recommended out of committee is a cousin to the failure to make sure that credit agencies don't downgrade America's credit. And so we are reminded again of the truth of modern American politics: Not only do lawmakers avoid making tough policy choices (like which benefits to cut or which tax breaks to end) they also avoid making the easiest of policy choices (like which respected, admired and vetted lawyers ought to become judges). And all in the name of partisan politics. Is there a category of political sin that lies somewhere between the mortal and the venal? It so, there ought to be. Step right up, you members of the 112th Congress, and especially you Tea Partiers, and confess your sins!

And ours, too. What exactly did we expect when our friends and neighbors and aunts and uncles sent anti-government politicians to Washington to run the government? These men and women didn't come to Capitol Hill to fix the ailing federal patient. They came as proud assassins to put the whole thing out of its misery. My colleague Yoni Appelbaum just wrote a great piece here at TheAtlantic.com about how govenrment won't be able to solve our problems until we have the courage to solve the problems of government. Hard to do when dozens of lawmakers believe they can win by promising to tear the whole thing apart.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how terrible Washington's politics and practices look the further away one is from the nation's capital. But the grim visions go both ways. When Washington looks back at America what does it see? A vocal and well-heeled minority of citizens who want to grieviously wound government, not just make it smaller. That and a seething majority of citizens who want their elected representatives to act the way they would in a financial crisis, prudently and responsibly, with courage and self-sacrifice. Too many of our lawmakers right now are listening to the former and betting against any meaningful recriminations from the latter. As discouraging as that is, can you blame them? 

Image: Reuters

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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