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Mark Bennett Opinion

September 22, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Popularity Contest: Congress does little to improve its standing with Americans

TERRE HAUTE — The members of Congress ardently resisting the Affordable Care Act emphasize its unpopularity.

Congress, itself, is far less popular.

With a long pause and sigh, Dan Coats — the Republican representing Indiana in the U.S. Senate — fielded the question, “How would you rate the performance of the 113th Congress?”

“Disappointing, in terms of really addressing the major things that need to be done,” Coats said in response, during an interview with the Tribune-Star Editorial Board earlier this month. “But, you know, the country is very divided. And we had an election, and so there are two very different views of what the role of government ought to be at the federal level. And it’s all compounded by the deficit, the numbers.”

Congress’ inability to accomplish anything, other than firmly preserving its division, nears historic levels. Only 24 substantive (or “non-ceremonial”) measures have become law in the 113th Congress, according to Pew Research Center calculations. That’s just five more than the least-productive Congress ever (coincidentally, the 112th) at the same point in its term, and three more than the second-least-productive 107th.

Not surprisingly, just 19 percent of Americans approve of Congress’ job performance, while 76 percent disapprove, according to the latest Gallup poll. By contrast, the Affordable Care Act — better known as Obamacare — is considered a good idea by 31 percent of the public, a bad idea by 44 percent, and a not-sure by 25 percent, as measured by a Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey. A similar Pew-USA Today poll showed 42 percent of Americans approving of Obamacare, and 53 percent disapproving. (Either poll’s numbers would seem like rock-star approval ratings for Congress.)

Of course, a faction of Washington lawmakers believes Congress would receive the public’s whole-hearted embrace if only all senators and reps followed their brand of politics.

America’s issues with Congress are manifesting themselves once again. The Republicans’ hard right — especially in the House, where the GOP holds a majority — is pushing to defund the health-care reform law, even if means a government shutdown, affecting almost every federal agency, a first-of-its-kind default on the USA’s debt, and a damaging blow to the economy’s tenuous recovery. That idea is slightly more popular than Congress, with just 36 percent of respondents in favor of cutting off funds to Obamacare, according to the Kaiser Foundation.

Plenty of Republicans have warned the rigid House GOP group that the shutdown showdown will only hurt the country, and their party. Coats, who wants to see Obamacare repealed, opposes the attempt to force a federal government shutdown if funding isn’t removed from the health-care act before it takes effect Oct. 1. Coats heaped sharp criticism on the president’s signature legislation, its path into law and its flaws, and maintains a desire to see it repealed. Last Monday, Coats introduced legislation to delay Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates until 2015, allowing next year’s mid-term elections to become a referendum on the law. That offers the best possibility for a repeal, Coats said.

The reality, he added, is that President Obama and the Democrat-majority Senate are not going to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Likewise, the law — already enacted in 2010 — includes “mandatory spending” apart from the yearly appropriations process, and would still be implemented and its taxes collected even in the event of a shutdown.

Those are points of reason from an opponent of the law. Of course, millions of Americans support the Affordable Care Act, and others might, too, if they understood it, beyond the political rhetoric. In an essay for cnn.com, Dr. Aaron E. Carroll — professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine and director of the Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research — pointed out that funds for public outreach and education on Obamacare were cut by the House. The law, Carroll wrote, “will do more good than harm,” but he also expressed concern that too few Americans understand it — 70 percent know part or nothing about it, according to the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll.

Congress, by repeatedly pushing the country toward one unnecessary crisis after another, including the threat of government shutdown, fuels the problem instead of working and finding compromise to achieve solutions.

Coats offered an observation on the atmosphere of political brinksmanship in Washington, and referenced the government shutdown in a similar congressional standoff in the winter of 1995-96.

“I don’t like the idea of playing political ‘gotcha’ when you have something as impactful or substantive as foreign policy conflicts or something as massive or impactful as the Obamacare act,” Coats said. “It’s a sixth of the economy. Hospitals and providers are making all kinds of adjustments on the basis of this, and I think that’s something you just don’t play politics with. You state your issues in a substantive and a political way, but if you look at the political side, I think [a government shutdown] backfires. It did the last time.”

Americans ultimately decide whether dysfunctional partisanship or compromise serves them better in Congress.

“There’s an irony here,” Coats said, “because I think in both parties, people are going up to members and saying, ‘Why can’t you get together and compromise?’ And then, every attempt that you make to get together and compromise, sometimes the same people come up and say, ‘Why are you working with them?’ So you’re kind of in a lose-lose situation, and sometimes you’re labeled by people in your own party as a so-called RINO — Republican In Name Only, or Democrat In Name Only. So these are some of the challenges. And then there are some who say the Founding Fathers wanted it exactly this way — they wanted you to really not be able to do very much. Let it work itself out, right?”

If the latter option is true, the Founding Fathers can rest peacefully.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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