by Donna Brazile
(CNN) — A remarkable thing just happened in Congress. Republicans and Democrats sat down together to work out a budget. This hasn’t happened since 2009.
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan — Romney’s running mate, you’ll recall, and the hero of fiscal conservatives — told Politico, “Let’s understand what we’re doing here, we’re going back to regular order. … This is how the founders envisioned the budget process. We want to get back to that.”
Ryan’s comment is both encouraging and puzzling. Departure from the regular order of compromise through conference committee manifested itself in an iron gridlock that, in turn, has left 63% of the nation thinking our political system is in decline.
So although it’s encouraging that Ryan, a Republican leader from Wisconsin, is attempting to make the system work again, we should remember why Congress became so dysfunctional.
There have been fiscal crises before — 17 shutdowns since 1976, now 18. There have been almost suicidal economic policies — fights over tariffs, trade and taxes have been bread and butter issues since Colonial days. Admittedly, the disaster known as the sequester is something new.
I can’t recall a time when a trifecta of fiscal irresponsibility happened almost simultaneously.
One reason has been the Republicans determined effort, since the election of President Obama, to undermine the process of compromise. This is not a secret. The result has been to undermine the efficacy of government and the good standing of the Republican Party.
It may be that Republicans, following the principle of enlightened self-interest, have recognized that no one has all the answers and that compromise for the good of the country — doing one’s sworn duty — is what they were elected to Congress to do.
But I’m skeptical. Ryan, along with Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, voted against the bill that ended the shutdown and both “ultra-conservatives” are members of the conference committee, the committee that’s supposed to restore Congress to “regular order.”
Ryan “in effect sided with the people who are using (brinkmanship) as a strategy to get their ends. I think that’s not a good sign,” said Maryland Democrat Rep. Steny Hoyer, House Democratic whip.
The committee has a deadline: The bill to fund the government expires on January 15 and the debt ceiling — and another looming default — comes hard on its heels on February 17. “Regular order” must be restored, a compromise found, by the end of December.
The media, shocked that our reality isn’t a reality show, is beginning to understand the issue. Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, “…wouldn’t it be a good idea, maybe, to start re-engaging before early next year to try to lay some groundwork…?”
McConnell practically dismissed the question — he said the committee was going to come up with a proposal — then returned to the conservative war cry of all cuts and no revenue. McConnell said, “It seems to me, that’s the best way to go forward as we go into the discussions that we will have in January and February.”
This, despite the fact that the deficit is shrinking, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The sequester took teachers out of schools and police officers off their jobs, grounded Air Force planes, docked Navy ships and could cost up to 900,000 jobs in a year. The federal furloughs, according to Goldman Sachs, also slowed personal income growth. Not good for the economy or the country.
McConnell, apparently, isn’t expecting the “regular order” to be restored. But then, he was in charge of the final negotiations in 2011, leading Congress to the brink of defaulting on our debt and the first ever lowering of our nation’s credit rating.
McConnell said “We’re not going to do this again in connection with the debt ceiling or with a government shutdown,” in an interview published in the conservative National Review titled “McConnell’s exit interview.” Let’s hope there’s no hidden escape clause.
Escape clause or poison pill. McConnell has repeatedly called on President Obama for “leadership,” but when he spells out what that means, it comes down to the president abandoning his principles and mandate and paying the extortion demanded by ultraconservatives.
Meanwhile, this week millions of disabled elderly veterans and children will start to see their food stamps cut. Private charities across the nation are being overwhelmed with demands beyond their capacities. Yet sadly, Republicans want to make even more cuts. This is wrong. Whatever happened to “We the people”?
The middle ground in Congress has all but disappeared. The founders intended competing principles and interests to check excesses and create a balance in our politics that would benefit “we the people.” Gerrymandered districts and a hyped-up fight-night media offer a partial explanation of why we seem to have neither checks nor balances.
I wish with all my being that holding the government of the people as hostage, demanding political ransom, is dead. Maybe at the end of the 2014 election, it will be.
Until then, pray, but don’t hold your breath that we’ll return to any “regular order.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.
Editor’s note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pot in America.” She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.