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Henningsen: Zombie Congress

08/30/12 5:55PM By Vic Henningsen
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(Host) Congressional leaders are already looking past November's election to the challenge of what's been called "Taxmaggedon" after January 1st. But it will be a lame duck Congress and if there's any hope of avoiding going over the "fiscal cliff", history teacher and commentator Vic Henningsen says they'll have to depend on zombies.

(Henningsen) Come January 1st, two enormous changes threaten to create another financial crisis that could halt economic recovery and send us back into recession. First, the Bush tax cuts will expire, raising taxes for almost all of us. Second, we face some $110 billion in automatic spending cuts, ensured when a legislative "supercommittee" couldn't agree on an alternate deficit-reduction strategy after last summer's debt limit showdown. Estimates of the total cost of these events range from $600 billion to a whopping $7.5 trillion in tax hikes and spending cuts - enough to put a serious dent in any economy, let alone one as fragile as ours.

Posturing in Congress has already begun. Democratic Senator Patty Murray warned that her party is ready to drive over the "fiscal cliff" if Republicans don't abandon opposition to higher taxes for the rich. Although this is meant to push Republicans to compromise, it's hard to see how that will work in an already highly-charged election year.

But although we'll witness a lot of verbal grenade-throwing between now and November, nothing will really get going until the lame-duck Congress reconvenes after the election. At that point we'll have just over a month to resolve something Republicans and Democrats have been dueling over for years.

That has some people really worried. Democratic representative Jim Cooper, of Tennessee, warned The Boston Globe in May about what he called a "zombie Congress." "We'll have 55 members who have already announced they're retiring or seeking a different office," he said, "and we'll have everybody who loses reelection. So they'll literally be the living dead, except they'll be back in Washington and have voting cards."

Cooper and others believe that these so-called zombies will line up with their parties and vote by remote control. How could it be otherwise, they ask, in such a sharply divided country, where so much money has been spent making us hate each other? Come November, says Cooper, half of us will be sore losers eager to get back at the winners in any way possible. Compromise? No way.

But wouldn't it be wonderful if those about to leave Congress were finally free to behave like mature adults?

No longer threatened by retaliation from their party leaders or the voters, they'll be in a position to make tough choices regardless of political cost; to broker a true compromise. And they'll be numerous enough to control majorities in either house. Couldn't people like Olympia Snowe, Richard Lugar, Joe Lieberman and other soon-to-be retirees pull together a "zombie caucus" to control the debate and bring about genuine fiscal compromise?

It is possible. Congress has risen to the occasion before. But one thing's for sure. The election will be thrilling enough, but the real show will begin when the lame duck Congress reconvenes - an actual zombie jamboree.
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