Editorial Board

Helpless President, Hopeless Congress

The president proposes and Congress disposes. Or so generations of schoolchildren have been taught. As events this week in Washington confirm, it doesn’t work that way, if only for the simple reason that it doesn’t work at all.

President Barack Obama on Monday proposed an extension of the Bush tax cuts for Americans earning less than $250,000 a year. The plan would allow taxes on the rich to rise to Clinton-era levels, a move justified by the historically low tax rates paid by the wealthy and by the limited economic stimulus those rates provide.

But the president didn’t offer the proposal because it is sensible, or rather only because it is sensible. There is little chance that Congress will adopt it -- or perhaps any other sensible proposal Obama might suggest. He offered it because it is politically advantageous.

With a few exceptions, such as his directive limiting deportations of the young and undocumented, the president appears very close to helpless on the domestic front. He is still able to use his office and his rhetorical skills to highlight a campaign contrast. But to the extent that Obama is “fired up and ready to go,” his combativeness and guile are in the service of politics, not policy.

He is not alone in this regard. On Wednesday, the House will vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act. There is no chance this vote -- the House’s 31st such effort -- will be any more successful than the previous 30. The Senate won’t even consider it.

Although opinion on the health-care law remains divided, more than half of Americans have said they would like to move on and leave the bruising battle behind, a sentiment we fervently share. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken after the Supreme Court’s June 28 ruling upholding the law, roughly one-quarter of Americans want to keep the law, and another quarter want to expand it. Only 38 percent support either repealing the law outright or “repeal and replace” -- the slogan Republicans have brandished but never bothered to explain.

The House will vote for repeal not because the vote will achieve that aim, or even because it plays to independent voters, but simply because so many members of the Republican caucus thrill to repeating the same bankrupt exercise. If the executive branch is helpless in the face of hyperpartisanship, the House is simply hopeless.

In 2008, another presidential election year, the Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi joined Republican leader John Boehner in passing President George W. Bush’s stimulus package -- $152 billion in tax breaks for taxpayers and businesses. The impetus? What Boehner called “the unsettled economic situation.” Growth was slowing, the housing bubble had grown precarious and the unemployment rate had risen to -- brace yourselves -- 5 percent.

Now Boehner is House speaker and he and his Republican colleagues see things very differently. Yes, the federal government spent more than $800 billion on stimulus in the last three years. But the economic chasm from which the nation still struggles to emerge is deep. Europe remains in constant crisis, and U.S. unemployment is stuck at 8.2 percent.

In response, the Republicans have offered contractionary policies, purportedly aimed at reducing debt, which threaten recovery and are opposed by the vast majority of professional economists.

Do-nothing government is not always bad government. But with high, long-term unemployment ruining careers, life savings, families and hopes, coordinated action is necessary. Weighing the helpless versus the hopeless, there is a balance in the two branches’ respective humiliations. It is not, however, the balance of power Americans are looking for. It’s a check on the ambitions of a nation.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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