Friday, February 19, 2010

What my morning commute says about the coming debt crisis

The last snowflake fell in Washington 10 days ago, but driving remains an unholy mess. During my morning commute today, gridlock occurred when a car heading in one direction came face to face with a mini-van headed in the other, on a street that was down to one lane. Neither could move forward or back up. (The whole problem could have been prevented if either vehicle had waited to enter the roadway until they were sure there was room to pass. But this is a town of stubborn and competitive people who think that backing down is the cardinal sin.) I sat there for about 15 minutes, and then found an exit strategy - pulling into a nearby parking lot that led to an alley that led to another way out.

The result was not just lost productivity for me and others caught in the gridlock. It also left me (and the other drivers, I expect) frustrated and angry.

This, I think, is an apt metaphor for the growing anger and frustration among voters at the political paralysis in Washington. The latest New York Times CBS poll finds that fewer than one out of ten Americans believe that their member of Congress deserves re-election. A Quinnipiac University poll finds that voters blame both parties equally for the gridlock, yet by "52 - 44 percent they want Congress and the President to keep trying on health care reform rather than giving up and moving on to other matters."

The voters want more bipartisanship, but that doesn't seem likely to happen. The New York Times reports today that despite the bipartisan health reform summit planned for February 25, the White House and Democrats are settling on a strategy of advancing health reform through a "majority rules" budget reconciliation bill that could be passed without GOP support.

Yet as difficult as it is to find a bipartisan way forward on health reform, the stakes for the country of continued gridlock may be even higher when it comes to the looming financial and budget crisis. The New York Times reports that "the unwillingness of the two parties to compromise to control a national debt that is rising to dangerous heights" is triggering fears that this could soon lead to an unprecedented global financial crisis. Yet rarely has the political system seemed more polarized and less able to solve big problems that involve trust, tough choices and little short-term gain NYTimes reporter Jackie Calmes writes.

In a follow up blog posted yesterday, Calmes comments on the President's decision to appoint a bipartisan panel to make recommendations to reduce the debt, "Mr. Obama set no conditions on the commission, including his campaign promise not to raise taxes on households making less than $250,000 a year. Economists across the political spectrum say the debt problem is so great that it demands both long-term revenue increases and reductions in the entitlement programs - Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security - whose escalating costs are the main drivers of long-range projections of unsustainable annual deficits." Yet GOP leaders insisted in response that the commission should focus only on cutting spending instead of raising taxes, and many Democrats are opposed to cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Calmes writes that former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY), who agreed to co-chair the panel, "signaled in his statement the real possibility that the commission would not succeed given the politically charged nature of the issue and the polarization in Washington. 'Whatever the results of our work,' he said, 'the American people are going to know about a lot more where we are headed with an honest appraisal of our situation and the courage to do something about it.'"

My morning commute left me irritable, but the partisan gridlock in Washington threatens to deny tens of millions of Americans access to affordable health insurance, and also, quite possibly, could undermine the long-term financial stability of the country.

Today's question: What do you think should be done about the partisan gridlock in Washington?

Its official: the ACP Advocate blog was selected by voters as the Best Health Policy and Ethics Blog of 2009. The announcement called the blog "one of the more influential professional association blogs out there". Thanks to all who support the blog, since any influence it has comes from you!

1 comment :

Rich Neubauer MD said...

I think the main thing that could help this difficult situation that we find outselves in would be superb political leadership focused on finding a way to finish the job on health care reform.

If that happens, it would be both a substantive event in itself, but also likely to have even broader effects. It would be an important symbolic success for an administration that rightly made health care reform one of its major goals.

By the way, good luck with that driving. Up here in Alaska we don't usually worry about gridlock but we have plenty of other winter woes on the roads. The signature sport up here is "ditch-diving" off icy roads.