Every week brings another adventure in brinkmanship in Washington as lawmakers barely avert government shutdowns, pass temporary spending measures, and utterly fail to substantively address America's gravest problems. All of which raises some serious questions:
Has there ever been a time when Congress was held in such low esteem, and such gridlock and dysfunction existed in Washington?
Pignanelli: "You can lead a man to Congress, but you can't make him think." — Milton Berle. Almost 90 percent of Americans are disgusted with Congress — the lowest measure of respect for this institution in modern history. Our federal representatives are now competing with diseases to determine who are the most unpopular organisms in the country.
But we have to look at this in perspective. There have been other times in our history when frustration levels with Congress were high. Notable examples include the early years of the Great Depression and that little incident of which we are celebrating the 150th anniversary: the Civil War.
Throughout the decade leading to this ultimate expression of public disappointment, Congress was beyond dysfunctional. Members shouted their personal hatred of each other on the floor. Congressman Preston Brooks almost killed Sen. Charles Sumner with his cane — enraged at Sumner's speech against slavery. The Southern press cheered the near fatal attack while the Northern media portrayed the incident as another illustration of a violent and barbaric South. (The similarities to Fox v. MSNBC are amazing.)
Thus, our country is suffering through another cycle of federal angst. As before, we will survive and again prosper.
Webb: The job approval of the president merely stinks, while citizens view Congress as a polluted mass of rotting garbage. At a time when the country needs to have confidence in its political and government institutions, we see nothing but dysfunction, rigid ideology, partisan bickering, lack of big ideas and a refusal to deal with realistic solutions.
How much of the current economic malaise can be attributed to dysfunction in Washington?
Webb: A great deal. Certainly, laws and regulations have always impacted business, consumers and the economy. But today, beyond policy, it is the way we are being governed, with stalemate, pernicious partisanship and zero focus on true problem-solving, that is damaging consumer confidence and exacerbating the worst economy since the Great Depression. The recent brinkmanship over the debt ceiling shook the nation's poise and sent the stock market into a tailspin. We wonder if our political leaders are capable of proper and responsible decision-making. Seldom have party politics and the process of governing so directly and immediately impacted the economy.
If we want to bolster confidence so that employers hire and consumers spend, the president and Congress must acknowledge that we're teetering on economic disaster and together provide real, bipartisan leadership, make tough decisions and not worry about the next election.
Imagine if, together, they reduced deficit growth by cutting federal spending to levels of just a few years ago. Imagine if they produced responsible tax reform, eliminating exemptions and tax breaks while lowering overall rates, allowing a modest revenue increase applied directly to major deficit reduction. Imagine if they really reformed entitlement programs, taking tough, but absolutely necessary, steps to keep Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare solvent. Imagine if they raised the gas tax to pay for desperate infrastructure needs. Imagine if they asked all Americans to sacrifice a bit, not singling out any class of people.
They would make the ideologues and partisans very angry. They might have tougher re-election campaigns, but I guarantee the business community and responsible citizens would respond favorably. We would have confidence in their leadership. The wheels of industry would turn once more.
Unfortunately, Congress and the president just play the blame game, neither side willing to do the difficult things that might cost them a few votes. It is disgusting.
Pignanelli: "Congress is functioning the way the Founding Fathers intended — not very well." — Barber Conable. Americans are angry because Congress and the president are acting as if they do not know what to do. The problem is ... they don't. Washington is a reflection of what is happening to society. How we work, eat, borrow, spend, obtain news, communicate and otherwise live is transforming.
Austerity is driving changes to our relationship with government. As the global and national economies evolve, Congress is unable to match the pace with the needed alterations to the federal system.
Compromise is necessary when facing crucial deadlines (i.e., debt ceiling). But our nation is now at a point where many citizens embrace personal beliefs regarding government with the same fervor as religious doctrine. Consequently, the once frequent compromises between these values are now unrealistic.
Which party or candidates, if any, will be punished in 2012 for stalemate, lack of progress and the lousy economy?
Pignanelli: Polls demonstrate voters have lost confidence in both parties. If the European economy collapses, President Obama and the Democrats may be held blameless. But if the U.S. remains stagnant while the world expands, the GOP wins big-time.
Webb: The buck stops with the president, so his re-election circumstances are dire. As for Congress, we deplore Congress as an institution, but we tend not to blame our individual congressmen for congressional insanity and lethargy. Perhaps we should.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: email@example.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.