A Lot of Politically Surprising Things Happened Last Week…But Has Anything Changed?

As we barreled toward the New Year last week, it seemed that each morning brought with it some genuinely surprising political news. Taken together, the most welcome unifying theme was a phenomenon we haven’t seen in Washington in quite some time: movement.

Six days ago, concerned Americans, weary of the fiscal showdowns, debt ceiling crises and many years without an operating Congressional budget resolution awoke to a bipartisan shocker. Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Representative Paul Ryan hammered out a budget compromise that avoids another painful government shutdown on January 15, and if passed by the Senate, eliminates the arbitrary and debilitating sequestration cuts that went into effect last March.

The exhausted and cynical among us wondered how long it might take for the Heritage Foundation, the Koch Brothers and their ilk to scare Ryan, Boehner and other Republican leaders into hasty retreat. And sure enough the predictable reproaches and accusations of fiscal treason arrived right on cue, before the full details of the Murray/Ryan compromise were even available. But then another amazing thing happened. Not one but two full days in a row, a beleaguered and angry Speaker Boehner went on the offensive against the third party groups who have exerted undue influence on U.S. government. In a Washington Post article entitled, Boehner attacks tea party groups as House approves budget deal, writers Paul Kane and Ed O’Keefe observe, “After years of placating conservative groups that repeatedly undermined his agenda, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) took direct aim at some of his tea party critics Thursday, accusing them of working against the interests of the Republican Party.”

Obvious and overdue certainly, but amazing nonetheless.

But the week was not yet through bestowing minor gifts of karmic delight upon the frazzled liberal and moderate. Hot on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s November decision to push through long-threatened changes to the Presidential nominee filibuster rules, the chamber began attempting to clear the enormous backlog of Executive Branch appointments. Embarrassed and angry Republicans did what they could to slow the process down, which only brought more self-inflicted pain from newly empowered Democratic leadership. Per Thursday, December 12 Daily Kos post:

“The Senate is in the midst of a marathon session forced by Mitch McConnell and his minions in full revenge mode. In retaliation for the Democrats changing the rules on nominations to end Republican filibusters, Republicans insisted on using up every bit of time available to delay votes as long as possible, by insisting on using all 30 hours of possible debate on nominees. The tactic merely delays the inevitable.”

After neglecting to do much of anything for a full calendar year, it’s like Congress woke up, chugged some 5-Hour Energy and suddenly remembered it was hired to do a job. The week’s events offered a glimmer of hope, no matter how small, that the legislative bodies just might prove capable of governing after all.

But hold on a minute. There was also plenty to warrant a collective pause, enough sobering activity to make us wonder if we might not be getting ahead of ourselves in all the giddy celebration. Because yes, the House and Senate managed to perform some actions that were once considered routine business, but has anything fundamentally changed?

Last Friday’s latest school shooting in Colorado soberly reminds us of Capitol Hill’s repeated failure to pass anything resembling sensible legislation to control the gun violence that has ended more American lives than all the wars in our nation’s history.

And about that awesome budget deal? Sure it avoids another pointless and reckless budget shutdown, but it doesn’t do much of anything to help the unemployed, jumpstart the infrastructure and educational investment we badly need or help shore up cash-strapped local economies. The Economic Populist headline from late last week says it all: Congressional Scrooges Deny Unemployment Benefit Extension. Because nothing says “goodwill toward men (and women)” like kicking the long-term unemployed when they’re down.

The moral of the story is this: there is reason for optimism. Hope that the flailing GOP is finally ready to get serious about wresting control of its party from the one percent interests that have completely marginalized its platform and messages. Hope that the Democrats have learned that there is no compromising with economic and social terrorists, and that they are finally willing to try governing without waiting for partners that will never arrive. But there is still plenty of reason to worry that for the foreseeable future, no one is fighting for the dwindling middle class, the working poor, the mentally ill and those terrorized by gun violence. Let this season of somewhat renewed hope be tempered by raising the bar of government expectation a little higher. Keeping us afloat is not enough.

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