Former congressman Barney Frank said it best when he told an interviewer years ago that politicians weren’t any prizes — but that the voters weren’t a bargain either.
With gridlock and partisan bickering pushing Americans over the fiscal cliff, Congress’ approval ratings have dropped to record lows — lower than cockroaches, according to one poll. Americans understandably blame politicians for the irresponsible spending cuts mandated by the budget sequester. Voters call lawmakers out for cowardice, lack of leadership, and inability to compromise.
But voters can take credit — or blame — for at least a fraction of this dysfunction, not only because they elected these knuckleheads, but also because they continue to send them mixed messages.
Most people, it seems, want more and better services without paying for them. Hey, who wouldn’t?
A CBS News poll shows that most Americans say they want to cut spending and raise taxes to cut the deficit. But 80 percent oppose cuts in Social Security and Medicare; two-thirds oppose raising their own taxes to reduce the deficit.
The 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax is another case in point. It’s not indexed to inflation and hasn’t risen in 20 years. The money it raises falls far short of what’s needed to maintain a first-rate transportation system.
People complain about bad roads. But any politician who showed real leadership and courage — which voters also say they want — and proposed raising the gas tax would get his head handed to him in the next election.
Even when voters send a consistent message, politicians know they can often ignore it. Most Americans support higher taxes on big corporations and incomes over $250,000. Neither is happening.
American voters tend to stick with their own political party, even when it opposes changes they overwhelmingly support, such as background checks for gun owners and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a recent New York Times/CBS News poll suggests.
With guidance from voters that’s often confusing and self-serving, it’s no surprise that Congress fails to do its job.