The system worked.
It wasn't pretty. It wasn’t neat. It wasn't quick.
But after much political wrangling, posturing and grandstanding, it still worked.
The two major political parties, despite their clear differences, came together and passed a major piece of legislation with bipartisan votes -- something that has rarely happened in political Washington over the past two years.
You would never know it from many news accounts. Rather than report that the “fiscal cliff” agreement reached was crafted in the true democratic tradition of compromise -- neither side got everything it wanted -- the news media chose once again to craft this as one more case of flaws and folly: who lost and who won, who stood firm and who caved, who was smart and who was dumb, who to praise and who to blame.
• "Winners and losers in contentious battle," blared a headline in Wednesday's Washington Post.
• "On the left, seeing Obama giving away too much," sneered a day-after headline in The New York Times.
• "Fiscal cliff compromise leaves few satisfied," sniffed a headline on the NBC News website.
And in a Wednesday morning discussion of the agreement on NPR’s "The Diane Rehm Show," Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, referred to members of Congress as “idiots,” and said the spectacle that played out over the past few weeks was a prime example of “the embarrassing dysfunction of this Congress.”
With observations and comments such these coming from the media and congressional scholars, little wonder then that the public holds Congress and our political process in such low esteem.
Perhaps what we all need is a refresher course in basic civics. That would take us back to 1787 and the Constitutional Convention where delegates debated the structure and size of what would become our two-house or bicameral Congress.
After much heated arguing, bitter fighting and even some walkouts – they even fought back then - a Great Compromise was reached. It gave each state proportional representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation in the Senate -a complicated structure that assured many long and bitter disputes over bills being considered.
James Madison, arguing for ratification of the Constitution in Federalist Paper No. 62, acknowledged that creating the Congress this way was messy, but nonetheless essential to assure that the voices of even the smallest states would carry some weight, make legislation difficult to pass (less government was in fashion then) and blunt the tyranny of the majority.
Madison presciently called it “an additional impediment…against improper legislation.”
If Madison was right, then the legislative exercise we just watched play out, messy, time consuming and aggravating as it was, showed that regardless of whether we were happy with the outcome, the system worked as intended. No one got everything he or she wanted, but we still moved ahead and avoided further calamity, at least for now. The system worked.
Alice Rivlin, a Brookings Institution scholar and former budget director in the Bill Clinton White House, expressed on NPR Wednesday morning an optimistic view of the recent compromise. She said what has the public disgusted with Congress is not that it takes so long to act, but that it often doesn’t act at all when it comes to budget matters. For example, the Senate has not passed a budget since 2009. Because of this, she said, “we haven’t been able to make policy in a meaningful way.”
However, she noted the fiscal cliff compromise was a step in the right direction and reason for hope that things will get better with the new Congress taking office on Thursday.
But discussion of things getting better and systems that work are not the stuff of most news reporting these days. Whether it is newspapers, television, radio or the Internet, we in the media love the drama of the conflict; love to make predictions of Apocalypse and love to vilify those we see as the bad guys. So even when a system works, imperfect though it might be, we play up its flaws, its omissions its inadequacies and its dangers.
Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times website cynically illustrates the point with a reader poll under an opinion column headlined “The ‘fiscal cliff’ con game.” The poll asks, “Is the ‘fiscal cliff’ deal a fraud, yes or no?
Which do you bet wins?
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University. As a reporter, Benedetto covered every presidential campaign since 1984.