Well, that didn’t go so well. Just when it appeared that a bipartisan group of senators calling themselves the Common Sense Coalition would finally find a way to break the endless impasse over immigration, the whole effort collapsed in a shower of recriminations and finger-pointing. The enemy, it seems, had been met, and it was everyone else.
The implications of this impasse go far beyond the single contentious issue of immigration reform. There are other, even tougher, issues facing Congress that would require even more gutsiness to be successfully addressed. And if these other problems aren’t fixed, things could get worse real fast for all Americans, whether they’ve been here since the Mayflower landed or just landed their citizenship papers.
The real problem, unfortunately, is timid leadership and an unwillingness by everyone in Washington to tackle any of the really hard issues facing the country. President Trump helped get himself elected on a promise not to touch Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, even though these and other entitlement programs consume a huge share of the federal budget. Members of Congress are about as willing to take on these issues as they are to touch a live wire. And the media stokes fear in the electorate about any talk of entitlement reform, striking more terror in elected officials.
The result is that nothing gets done to rein in these programs, and federal deficits continue to climb. Over the next 10 years we’ll add up to $10 trillion to the national debt. Liberals who are quick to harp that this is all because of recent tax cuts fail to note that more than 80 percent of this increased debt will come because of out-of-control spending, not tax cuts. And conservatives who sunnily claim that we can somehow grow ourselves out of this fiscal mess fail to admit that there’s practically zero chance of the economy expanding fast enough to stem the rising tide of red ink.
So what to do? And when? Here’s what I predict: Nothing will get done, at least not in the short term. The upcoming midterm elections will keep Congress paralyzed with fear through the rest of this year. Then, after this election cycle, more of nothing will happen. Either Congress will be divided by a flip of the House from Republican to Democrat or the GOP will cling to power with a thinner House majority. Neither is a recipe for any profiles in courage.
And, of course, as the year ends, the political circus will turn its attention to the 2020 presidential election, which will unleash another round of timidity and denial at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Think of it as a tawdry TV unreality show that will make one of those teary performances by the loopy Omarosa Manigault look good. Every Democratic senator running hard to the left for president (and that’s just about every Democratic senator) will race away from entitlement reform. Every Republican senator who lives in fear of a challenge from the right (and that’s just about every Republican senator) will resist any accommodations with the other side of the aisle.
The White House will gear up for the Make America Great Again Again sequel, with Trump hoping for continued super-strong economic recovery and praying that the stock market doesn’t take another big dive, that interest rates don’t shoot up as deficits climb, that Americans continue to work and produce in record numbers and that the whole American economic juggernaut doesn’t run aground.
All this is too bad. Really too bad. Because with just a mild case of intestinal fortitude, we can avoid going over the edge of the precipice. A bipartisan fix of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid could be configured, as it was a generation ago, when Republican and Democrats didn’t treat one another as pariahs. Without entitlement repair, all of the progress we’re making could slip away in a flash, with the U.S. free- falling into a fiscal crisis that may, sadly, be the only thing to jar Washington to action.
In the meantime, a number of other out-of-date and costly entitlement programs — from disability insurance to flood insurance to food stamps to college grants — that could all be reshaped for the 21st century economy and society will instead, without attention, continue to languish. More about that next week, when I’ll tackle some of those issues and the real common-sense coalition that will be needed to address them. Assuming common sense isn’t entirely lost.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.