It's hardly news to say that the American people are fed up with
Congress. Public disapproval of the legislative branch is practically as
old as the country itself. But lawmakers seemed to reach a new low in
One Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that one out of every three
Americans considered the first session of the 112th Congress to "below
average." Another 42 percent said it was "one of the worst" in the
institution's 222-year history. A poll by CNN, meanwhile, found that
only 41 percent think their representative should be re-elected -- the
first time that figure had dropped below 50 percent.
Is this distrust deserved? Let's review some of the issues Congress
handled in 2011. We'll start with the positives.1) A Balanced Budget
Amendment. This is the first shot of a long war to limit the size of
government while making it virtually impossible to raise taxes to
balance the budget.
The Senate recently had the opportunity to vote on a BBA sponsored by
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., one that would exempted Social Security. This
despite the fact that fast-growing entitlement spending is playing a
huge role in our burgeoning national debt.
Udall's BBA even threw in some class warfare. It would have enshrined
the following provision in the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall not
pass any bill that provides a net reduction in individual income taxes
for those with incomes over $1 million." But it was soundly defeated
with votes from both parties.
In the House, a version supported by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., also
crashed and burned. Its major problem: It would have made it easier for
Congress to resort to higher taxes to help balance the budget. Or try to
balance it, that is: Anyone who knows history can tell you that higher
taxes inevitably leads to higher spending.
A stronger, sounder BBA would certainly be a good thing. In the
Senate, Utah Republicans Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee did sponsor one that
sidestepped the pitfalls of the Udall-Goodlatte approach. (It was voted
down as well.) But avoiding a tax-hiking BBA definitely counts as a
2) Obamacare Repeal. The president's signature law may be approaching
a day of reckoning in the Supreme Court, but the House already did its
part, voting 245 to 189 last January to repeal Obamacare. The vehicle: a
bill sponsored by Rep. Eric Cantor, R.-Va., the Repealing the
Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.
3) Budget Votes. President Obama's budget went down 0-97 in the
Senate. The Democratic-controlled chamber, in fact, still hasn't passed a
budget, as required by law, in more than 900 days. But no wonder
Obama's budget tanked: According to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., his $3.7
trillion plan would have created $8.7 trillion in new spending, added
$1.6 trillion in new taxes, and led to $13 trillion in new debt over the
next 10 years.
A far more sensible budget plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.,
meanwhile, drew the support of all but five Senate Republicans. His
budget was a good first step to start down the road of comprehensive
4) No New Taxes. Conservative legislators successfully stymied
efforts by President Obama and liberal legislators to raise taxes.
On the negative side of the ledger:
1) The Supercommittee. The debt-ceiling fight that raged over the
summer led to its creation. Its mission: find $1.2 trillion in cuts over
10 years. If it didn't succeed, defense was scheduled for massive cuts.
Liberals may have failed to raise taxes, but having defense put in the
budget cross-hairs like this is an obvious conservative loss.
2) New Debt. The Congressional Budget Office counted $1.3 trillion in
new debt last year. Preventing new and higher taxes is key, but it must
be accompanied by serious and meaningful budget cuts. The fact that
Congress continues to show no stomach for this necessary step offers a
big clue as to why public disapproval is so high.
3) Gridlock. It can often be a good thing, especially when there are
bad ideas to shoot down. But the gridlock in 2011 was often needless.
Worse, conservatives always seemed to lose policy battles in the end. It
was hardly encouraging, for example, to see the Ryan budget plan
abandoned when the time came to pass the annual appropriations bills.
4) Government Shutdown. Washington came within minutes of one last
April before a compromise was finally worked out. The final deal cut
projected increases in spending, but brought no serious reforms to the
federal government. Stop-gap measures to avoid making things worse are
better than nothing, but conservatives need to start winning the bigger
Will Congress will do better in 2012? That depends on how willing lawmakers are to make difficult decisions.
Take the "cut, cap and balance" plan, which won House approval last
July. It's good to see lawmakers stand behind an effort to make
substantial spending cuts, pass enforceable budget caps, and pass a
strong BBA. But unless they redouble their efforts to turn these good
intentions into reality, lawmakers will stay unpopular back home.
Do they really want to do that, especially in a major election year?
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).