U.S. Congress, Communists and God
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
After the high-profile failure of a Congressional “supercommittee” to trim America‘s budget deficit, one could be forgiven to conclude that there’s nothing the divided House of Representatives can agree on. But that would be wrong.
Among the few topics on which Democrats and Republicans in the Republican-dominated House see eye-to-eye: the official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust”. That has been the case since 1956 but as the supercommittee wrangled with the thorny deficit problem, lawmakers found time to vote on a resolution reaffirming the motto. Why that reaffirmation was deemed necessary speaks volumes about congressional priorities and Washington‘s peculiar political climate.
According to two polls taken before the supercommittee failed to find a compromise, the American public’s faith in Congress stands at historic lows – a 9-percent approval rating according to a CBS/New York Times poll and 13 percent according to Gallup. In October, Gallup forecast that disenchantment with the people’s representatives would further deepen in the absence of agreement.
Not to harp on the negative, let’s revisit the resolution on America‘s motto, passed 396 to 9 on November 1, with two legislators voting “present” and 26 not voting. Randy Forbes, the Republican who sponsored the measure explained it had been necessary because “a number of public officials … forget what the national motto is.” He named President Barack Obama as one of the forgetful officials, referring to a speech in which he cited E Pluribus Unum as America‘s motto. (Latin for “out of many, one”, those words are emblazoned on the official seal of the United States and engraved, along with “In God We Trust”, on 25-cent coins. E pluribus unum served as the country’s de facto motto until 1956, when Congress passed a law making In God We Trust the official motto).
In the floor debate on the matter, one legislator, Arizona Republican Trent Franks, portrayed failure to reaffirm the motto in apocalyptic terms. “If … man is God, then an atheist state is as brutal as the thesis it rests upon and there is no reason for us to gather here in this place,” he told his fellow members. “We should just let anarchy prevail because after all we are just worm food.”
There are no polls showing how many Americans live in fear of atheist anarchy, or of the perils arising from people confusing one motto with the other. But such remarks leave no doubt about the extraordinary tone-deafness of some legislators at a time when unemployment and inequality dominate the national conversation.
If the oddly-timed resolution was meant by Republicans to cast doubt over Obama’s belief in God, it appears to have had little or no effect. Why Democratic lawmakers (all but eight of whom voted for the resolution) thought it was an urgent necessity and a good use of Congressional time remains a puzzle.
MORE SUPPORT FOR COMMUNISM THAN CONGRESS?
There are, it should be noted, some legislators who are worried about the apparent disconnect between ordinary Americans and their representatives and leaders inside the beltway that surrounds Washington. One of those worried is Michael Bennet, a Democratic Senator who voiced his concerns on the floor of the Senate in mid-November, carrying a number of astonishing charts illustrating the precipitous decline of Congress in the eyes of Americans.
According to one of the charts based on polls taken in different years, more people support the United States going Communist (11 percent) than approve the job Congress is doing. Congress‘s approval rating among Americans ties with that of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president and anti-American firebrand.
Bennet ascribed the “catastrophic” decline in support over the past decade to “our inability to address problems the way people in their local community are doing it. There is not a mayor in Colorado (his home state) who would threaten the credit-rating of their community for politics. Not one.”
The United States lost its top-tier credit rating last August, for the first time in its history, when the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded it from AAA to AA. One of the reasons for the agency’s downgrade: the inability of the Democratic and Republican parties to govern effectively and to compromise on diametrically opposed positions on how to deal with the country’s deficit.
As the supercommittee’s failure to come to a compromise has shown, those positions are unchanged from August, when a fierce political battle over the national debt pushed the country to the brink of default. Agreement between the 12 committee members – six Democrats, six Republicans, from both houses of Congress – proved as elusive as agreement among all 535 members.
With the campaign for the 2012 elections in full swing, prospects of action that would break the gridlock and regain some of the lost public trust look remote. Resolutions on the model of “In God we Trust” won’t do it. But perhaps the lawmakers can take comfort in the fact that they do not rank last on Bennet’s chart.
Congress is still more popular, by four points, than Fidel Castro.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)