- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington is in a tizzy over the failure of the supercommittee. Well, the city hasn’t seen anything yet. Wait until Election Day next November when voters will decide what to do about the capital’s incompetence.

Yes, incompetence. The primary reaction to the supercommittee’s inability to agree on a deficit-reduction plan was, “What else is new?” Americans have grown accustomed to watching lawmakers and government officials fail to deliver whenever they take on major projects. And they are tired of the pattern.

That’s not to say that Congress and President Obama don’t enact new laws. They do. They’ve blended to approve many - from the stimulus program to health care reform. But whether Washington acts or doesn’t act, voters see the same result: The nation’s problems remain unsolved.

Joblessness is still severe. Health costs are rising fast. The federal budget deficit is a monster that gets uglier by the day. Attempts in Washington to correct these troubles have all fallen short. The punt by the supercommittee is just the latest iteration of this same story.

Clearly, the system isn’t working. So the election of 2012 is likely to be a referendum on what the government should look like instead. Voters will have two very different visions of government to choose from and if a large majority selects one of them, Washington will change in significant ways.

Congress has been deadlocked because of this division. Republicans and Democrats don’t get along, and that’s one reason for stalemate. But the bigger reason is that the two sides sincerely disagree about how much government should spend and on what. Only the electorate can sort out who’s right and who’s wrong in this important question.

First, both sides agree that the budget deficit must shrink. Borrowing 40 cents on every dollar that is appropriated in Washington is far too much. It’s dangerous, in fact, over the long run. But beyond that, Democrats and Republicans don’t see eye-to-eye.

Democrats want a large, active government with many benevolently intended projects. They believe taxes need to be increased, especially on the well-off and profitable corporations, to finance these good deeds.

Republicans don’t think that government deserves a raise. In fact, they want to downsize the federal bureaucracy dramatically and could stomach extra tax revenue only as part of a reform of the tax system that also lowers already-too-high tax rates.

In this dichotomy, there’s room for tax reform that lowers tax rates (the Republican dream) and also eliminates special-interest deductions and credits (the Democrats’ wish). The same combination became law in 1986, the last time the tax code was overhauled.

This time - starting in 2013 - tax reform can happen again but as part of sweeping government reform. The size and shape of that government cutback will be determined by voters along the way.

President Obama has largely been an observer to this process, condemning congressional inaction especially, in his view, by Republicans. Voters see that dodge as well and are not as willing as White House strategists think to assign blame to the opposition party. After all, aren’t Democrats in charge at the White House and the Senate?

In the meantime, each side in the grand debate will have tough choices to make.

Will lawmakers be willing to explode the deficit even more by extending the payroll tax holiday? Or will they find a way to pay for the thousand-dollar-a-year, average-family benefit? There are plenty of other expensive goodies scheduled for extension or expiration before year’s end, as well.

All of these will play into the narrative that voters will take with them to the polls next year. Each decision will either fuel the story of Washington incompetence or diminish it. The futures of government officials - of both political parties - will depend on how well they’re able to make those decisions and, most importantly, make those answers count in the real world we live in.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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