'Cleaning out the barn'


Can it be? After what seems like an eternity when the one-word summary of life within the U.S. Congress could be neatly summarized as "gridlock," a budget deal struck between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government last week and signed into law this week gives hope to those who have been searching largely in vain for any sign that lawmakers could actually find common ground on anything.

And we shouldn't get overly excited — yet — that an outburst of rationality has suddenly brightened the skies over Washington D.C. Even without an election year looming right around the corner and the silly season of Presidential electioneering hopefully drawing to some sort of a close, there's still no shortage of issues for Republicans and Democrats to lock horns over. Take immigration, for one. or a highway construction bill, for another.

But at least both sides finally figured out that putting the country through another debt-ceiling crisis or government shutdown was not only dumb, but not even smart politics. The budget deal signed by President Obama on Monday raises the nation's debt ceiling to March 2017 and lifts spending limits through September 2017, conveniently after next year's election.

One can only hope this remarkable demonstration of common sense — where both sides gave a little and got less than they wanted — heralds a new era where the no retreat, no surrender (somehow they made sense when Bruce Springsteen sang those words) politics of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, at whose feet the bulk of the blame for congressional gridlock of the past six years or so must rest, has finally been reined in by whatever adults remain in the room. Closed doors, backroom politics may not be pretty — cue the sausage making metaphors — but that's the way deals get cut and things get done. One can feel passionate about such problems as the nation's total debt, the budget deficit and taxes, but there's a way to bring that passion and point of view to bear in a way that doesn't paralzye the entire government. And while this is hardly the first time in history the federal lawmakers found themselves squabbling over solutions to the nation's problems to the point of absurdity, the margin for error seems less and less.

We live in interesting times, but they are also looking more and more fraught with the potential for taking bad situations and making them infinitely worse. Exhibit A is Syria and the endless contortions of the Middle East. It was bad enough when we "only" had militant Islamists were tearing at each others throats while holdover authoritarian regimes from a bygone era in places like attempted to keep their power intact for another 100 years years. But now we have President Vladimir Putin of Russia involved in the ongoing catastrophe of Syria, surely one of the most complex battlefields of modern times. It seems impossible for any three of the multiple factions involved in the struggle to control that troubled area to agree on anything. But the arrival of Russia on the scene brings a fresh level of concern, in view of their thuggish leader's desire to re-create the power and glory of the former Soviet Union and project it anew on the global stage, usefully distracting the Russian populace from the economic implosion that awaits them.

Then we have the Chinese, building islands in the waters off South East Asia they claim won't be "militarized" but if that's not the purpose, then it's hard to figure what they are for, unless it's their idea of a stimulus program to offset a slowing economy. The entire matrix of an increasingly belligerent China, a perception of relative decline in U.S. military influence in the region (thank you Middle East quagmire), shaky relations between Japan and China and the annoying plump little nuclear armed leader of North Korea, eager not to be ignored for long and prone to releasing inflamatory comments from time to time, make that a very volitile arena as well. Throw in a global economic situation where growth remains stubbornly sluggish virtually everywhere, and you have a set of problems that chould be manageable if the U.S. government remains nimble and not bogged down in nonsensical disputes over spending limits, but easily could spiral rapidly and unexpectedly out of control.

Politics should stop at the water's edge, as an older and wiser generation of political leaders once understood, but that apprently is a lesson that needs to be re-learned over and over.

Former House Speaker John Boehner may not have been everyone's idea of an inspiring leader, but at least he tried to bring his unruly GOP caucus into line, from time to time. But he should have taken a firmer line with his far-right Tea Party caucus members and cut deals without them. Of course, that would have had him either voted out of office or thawrted at every turn. At least, in the end, he did "clean out the barn" on his way out the door and gave his successor a chance to get his feet under him brfore the mud starts flying anew. It will be fascinating to watch how Rep. Paul Ryan fares going forward. His honeymoon may well be brief, and it only took one Sunday morning of appearances on news talk shows to set teeth grinding over at the White House about how the President wasn't "trustworthy" on immigration. That's pretty rich, since it was congressional inaction that pushed the Obama White House to try executive action as a workaround. Hopefully the other soothing noises about wanting to make a fresh start will have more traction.

Congress, if it wanted to, has no shortage of issues to sink its teeth into — in addition to immigration and national security, we have an economy that stubbornly refuses to get into high gear, an educational system not producing enough prepared workers, a crmbling national infrastructure, a combustible set of racial tensions, and a need to bring clarity and consensus to energy policy, to name a few. These next 12 months will be fascinating, when the players involved in the drama aren't making everyone else throw their arms up in despair.


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