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Economic doldrums and government gridlock

2011 News of the Year | Standard and Poor's downgraded the nation's triple-A credit rating for the first time

Issue: "2011 News of the Year," Dec. 31, 2011

Michael Bennet is serving his first term in Congress. But the Democratic senator from Colorado learned quickly how frustrating Capitol Hill can be. During a November speech on the Senate floor during another dead-end congressional debate on deficit reduction, Bennet remarked on a congressional approval rating: "My goodness, the Internal Revenue Service has a 40 percent approval rating compared to our 9 percent. BP had a 16 percent approval rating at the height of the oil spill, and we're at 9 percent. More people support the United States becoming communist at 11 percent than approve of the job that we're doing. I guess we can take some comfort that Fidel Castro is at 5 percent."

His lament came a year after incoming House Speaker John Boehner said to a jubilant crowd on election night, "For far too long, Washington has been doing what's best for Washington" and pledged a day when government "has earned back the trust of the people."

But the labor pains associated with changing the way Washington works gave birth to more budget theatrics and political gamesmanship than measurable change.

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It was destined to be an uphill battle for incoming congressional conservatives. Reaching deficit reduction agreements that could pass a Republican House and a Democratic Senate and then be signed by a Democratic president over and over ended in quagmire.

Round 1 in the spring led to a showdown that edged the federal government toward a shutdown. Democrats criticized President Barack Obama for failing to lead while others in his party attacked a House budget that cut funds to programs like a cowboy poetry festival in Nevada. "This is the moment," Boehner said. "Let's not kick the can down the road one more time."

But there would be many moments in 2011. Lawmakers averted a government shutdown in April just an hour before a final deadline. That deal cut $38 billion from the government's budget for the current fiscal year. But it was a mere pinprick to the nation's then $14 trillion debt. It turned out to be even less momentous when the Congressional Budget Office estimated that actual cuts would total only $352 million. The congressional approval rating dropped from the 20s to the teens.

By summer the government's borrowing power hit its limit-leading to another messy drama over increasing the nation's debt ceiling. This time GOP Tea Party freshmen battled the Republican establishment for more cuts. Urged to reach an agreement on $4 trillion in spending cuts, lawmakers finalized cuts that barely topped $2 trillion.

That led to the only felt score Washington received in 2011: Standard and Poor's in August downgraded the nation's triple-A credit rating for the first time in U.S. history.

It came as unemployment held stubbornly at 9 percent, dipping to 8.6 percent in November. The housing market too continued in its state of collapse-from a high of 2 million housing starts per month in 2005, in early 2011 per month housing starts remained under half a million per month, rising slightly toward year's end and contributing to fractional drops in unemployment.

In Washington, the debt ceiling agreement sent most of the hard work of making further cuts to a bipartisan congressional panel. It was dubbed a super committee, but the panel's name did not come with any super powers. The 12 members received the task of carving $1.2 trillion from the deficit by Thanksgiving-a dirty job of doing in 10 weeks what neither the White House, the Republican-led House, nor the Democratic-led Senate could do in 10 months.

To the surprise of no one, the super committee proved too weak to overcome the entrenched positions of both parties. Fresh dirt had not been shoveled onto the super committee's grave before lawmakers vowed to fight the automatic across-the-board spending cuts the panel's failure had triggered.

"We end this process united in our belief that the nation's fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve," said a joint statement by the bipartisan heads of the committee. But Washington had kicked the can down the road one more time, and the CBO predicted that spending levels will continue to climb. In the interval since the summer showdown began, the federal debt had risen by more than $1 trillion.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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