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Year in review: The lessons Congress didn't learn in 2011

December 21, 2011 |  1:08 pm

House Republicans prepare to negotiate with themselves
The 2010 election ushered a big class of freshmen into Congress -- 94 House members and 13 senators -- unfamiliar with the ways of Washington. As it turns out, many of them also seemed unfamiliar with the basic concepts of governing. Things that absolutely had to get done couldn't get done until the last minute, if not later. And proposals with broad bipartisan support were stymied by an intransigent minority and a fractured House leadership. The current wrangling over extending the temporary payroll tax cut is a case in point.

Here are five lessons about governing in Washington that lawmakers haven't yet learned. One can only hope they learn them soon.

1. Bills only matter if they pass both chambers and get signed into law. The new House GOP majority can be forgiven for pushing through a bunch of bills early in the session that had no chance of passing the Senate. But passing measures that die in the other chamber is not a sign of accomplishment. It's an exercise in making political statements.

The same is true for the Senate as well, and Democrats are no less prone than Republicans to political gamesmanship. The difference is that, thanks to the filibuster rule, senators understand how to craft a measure to win at least some degree of bipartisan support. Too bad bipartisan support in the Senate doesn't seem to count for anything in the House.

2. Presidents don't legislate. The average American may not be an expert in civics, but this bit of knowledge is common: Congress passes laws. Presidents can only sign or veto them. So when lawmakers don't finish the tasks that the Constitution assigns them, such as passing the annual spending bills that keep the federal government's lights on, they can't blame President Obama for that. Nor can they blame Obama for the fact that they haven't passed any substantive measures to improve the struggling economy, which is the only thing most of their constituents really want them to do. And they certainly can't blame Obama when they can't compromise on fiscal issues, as was the case with the not-so-super deficit-reduction committee.

In short, Republicans in Congress can complain all they want about a lack of presidential leadership, but even if Obama were sitting utterly silent on the sidelines, Congress would still control the purse strings. As the saying goes, the president proposes, but Congress disposes.

3. The debt ceiling is not a budget-control mechanism. As tempting as it might be to think of the debt limit as a way to cap deficit spending, it's not. The real tools to limit borrowing are the annual budget resolutions and spending bills, along with any measure that sets tax rates or creates entitlements. Once Congress has set those pieces in motion, it creates obligations that lawmakers can't balk at honoring without damaging the country's credit rating.

Refusing to raise the debt ceiling to meet the obligations Congress has already taken on might seem like good politics, but it's irresponsible. Even flirting with the idea of not raising the limit as needed can shake investors' confidence, as Standard & Poors demonstrated earlier this year.

That's not to say Congress should keep spending like a drunken sailor. It's just to say that the way to rein in spending isn't by stopping the government from borrowing to meet the obligations it has already incurred. It's to not take on those obligations in the first place.

4. Leaders need followers. It's been painful to watch the House GOP repeatedly cut the legs out from underHouse Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), often with the help of Boehner's top lieutenants. As a result, the House has been unable not just to seal deals, but to stick with them. Spending levels in particular seem to be open for relitigation without end.

If Republicans don't like where Boehner is taking them, they should find someone else to lead. But whoever they pick, that leader needs to be able to speak for the caucus.

5. Talking constantly about raising taxes is not a winning strategy. Since midyear, Democrats have been One Note Johnnies, seemingly unable to conduct a conversation about the economy or Congress without clamoring for higher taxes. In particular, they want "millionaires and billionaires" to "pay their fair share."

Oh sure, polls say that most people would be happy to raise taxes on the rich. That's because most people do not find themselves in that category. But the GOP has a point: the Democrats' relentless calls for dunning the wealthy smacks of class warfare. And their tax demands are drowning out the other, more substantive elements of their proposals for the economy. When every initiative is accompanied by a proposal to raise taxes on the rich, the idea gets old in a hurry.


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-- Jon Healey

Photo: Five leading House Republicans attend a negotiating session they called with the absent Senate. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images

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