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Capitol Lookout: Politicians lock horns in a perfect storm

As another long, hot summer is about to descend on Washington, D.C., the second act of the seemingly endless political drama “He Said, She Said” is getting under way again.

With one side of the Capitol seeing nothing but white and the other black, both sides are moving inexorably and in slow motion toward an economic precipice that everyone agrees is just over the horizon.

With just about every major economic decision being put off until after November’s elections, a number of well-placed Capitol Hill insiders believe the fate of the republic may well hinge on the electoral fortunes of the 87 Tea Party Republicans who were first elected to Congress in 2010. Nearly every one of them has signed a pledge against raising taxes in the belief that this is what a majority of the American electorate wants. But their unwillingness to compromise has resulted in near total congressional gridlock and an utter failure to solve our mounting fiscal problems.

That’s the consensus of opinion I took away in the wake of meeting a dozen or so members of Congress and their staff from both sides of the aisle this spring during the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s American Boating Congress. I’ve been attending this annual conclave since it was launched in the 1980s.

For those who don’t normally follow the ebb and flow of Washington’s machinations, but whose lives and businesses will be mightily affected by how this drama plays out, here’s a brief sketch of what’s at stake. But first forget about the Mayan calendar’s prophecy for 12/12/12. The real end-of-the-world deadline is Dec. 31, 2012.

On the last day of this year the Bush tax cuts will expire, including those affecting marginal rates, capital gains, dividend rates and the marriage penalty. The alternative minimum tax “patch” will disappear and the estate tax will balloon. The 2 percent Social Security payroll tax cut will bite the dust, as will the 100 percent write-off for business investment.

But that’s only the first act. Because last year’s “super committee” could not compromise and reach any agreement, $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years will have to be made, with 50 percent coming from defense and 50 percent from so-called “discretionary” programs. With defense hawks vowing opposition to this deal, which was ultimately accepted after much debate, the stage is set for another major brawl.

Act three features a vote to raise the debt ceiling. Many of you might recall last summer’s debacle. A long and drawn-out battle to raise the debt ceiling resulted in a lowering of America’s credit rating.

With all of these storms due to hit on or about the same time, many observers have been hoping that a “perfect storm” can be averted during the lame-duck session of Congress — about 25 working days between Election Day and the end of the year. The thinking is that with the pressure of the campaign over, calmer heads will prevail and a “grand compromise” can be struck.

Recent events are beginning to buffet this scenario.

On May 15 the conservative Club for Growth, which has made a name for itself by funding successful primary challenges against RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), issued a report critical of many House GOP freshmen for not being sufficiently true to Tea Party principles by voting to increase the debt ceiling and voting against spending cuts.

Thirty-four of the freshman class of 87 received scores lower than 65 percent, including Tea Party firebrand Rep. Alan West (R-Fla.). Click here for a complete list of Club for Growth ratings.

Getting singled out for being insufficiently pure can be a death knell for politicians in an election year. The recent primary election defeat of the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), by a Tea Party-backed candidate is just one example of what can happen to those who stray from ideological purity. Being drummed out of the Republican Party — a fate that befell former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist — is a development that most politicians have not forgotten.

In what can only be described as pure coincidence, House Speaker John Boehner later that same day gave a speech demanding that any year-end debt limit increase be offset by equal or greater spending cuts or reforms — and not taxes — the position he took last year that led to a high-stakes game of chicken and a downgrade of the nation’s credit rating.

To make this string of events seem even more bizarre, in an effort to bring the warring sides together President Obama invited top congressional leaders to the White House the very next day for what is now being called the “Hoagie Summit,” featuring some of the president’s favorite sandwiches from a local deli.

By all reports, “hoagie diplomacy” failed to satisfy anyone’s appetite. It now appears that gridlock will harden as the presidential campaign slogs on and the odds of a train wreck increase with every passing week as each side seeks to solidify its base.

That said, there is one scenario that could break the logjam. What happens this November to the 87 Tea Party freshman elected in 2010 will go a long way toward deciding whether a lame duck session or a new Congress that takes office in 2013 will be able to deal with the problems outlined above.

Should this group suffer major losses and be replaced by lawmakers who have campaigned to help solve the nation’s problems rather than make a statement or be hog-tied to a “no-tax” pledge, the chances will increase that Boehner, who has been boxed in by the Gang of 87 since they were elected, will have more room to maneuver and reach a compromise with Democrats on spending cuts and revenue reforms.

Whether this takes place in a lame-duck session or in the first quarter of 2013 is anybody’s guess. At this point the chattering class is of the opinion that the lame-duck session will kick the can down the road and extend whatever needs to be extended for a short period of time until a new Congress can reach a “grand compromise.”

Let’s face it. Deal making is what politicians are elected to do in a republic with two parties and a government founded on a system of checks and balances. Our system of government cannot work if all of the members of one party vote as if it’s a zero-sum game. Bipartisanship has served our country well for more than two centuries. With trillions of dollars of economic activity and the welfare of hundreds of millions of Americans at stake for years to come — not just for 2013 — it’s time to put politics aside. The alternative is a recession even greater than the so-called Great Recession.

Michael Sciulla testified more than 30 times on Capitol Hill during a 28-year career at BoatUS, where he managed the organization’s government relations and public affairs operations while serving as editor of its 650,000-circulation flagship publication.



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