Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Congress' fiscal moment of truth

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
December 10, 2012 -- Updated 1644 GMT (0044 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Avoiding the fiscal cliff could be a moment of truth for Congress, says Julian Zelizer
  • It's an opportunity to restore public trust in a maligned institution, he says
  • Zelizer: Congress's inability to achieve bipartisan legislation is one of its biggest failings
  • A budget deal could show it's possible to have responsible partisanship, he says

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Avoiding the fiscal cliff can be a moment of truth for Congress as an institution. The ability of Congress to reach a deal on its own, rather than relying on tax hikes and spending cuts by default, would be a powerful push back against the loud chorus of critics who for almost a decade have been decrying dysfunction on Capitol Hill.

According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans consider legislators to be some of the least trusted professionals in the nation. Car salespeople ranked only slightly lower.

This is not the first time that Americans have felt this way. During the early 1960s, Congress was widely derided as a broken branch of government. A bipartisan alliance of Southern Democrats and Republicans used the committee process to bottle up legislation for years. "The sapless branch," Sen. Joseph Clark called Congress in an outburst of frustration with his colleagues. But this period of gridlock was followed by a huge burst of legislation that resulted in tax cuts, voting rights, civil rights, Medicare and Medicaid, education policy, a War on Poverty and much more.

iReport: How will the 'fiscal cliff' affect you?

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Though it would be far short of a New Deal or Great Society, a budget deal would allow Congress to prove that the critics are off. Most important, Congress could show that it can make unpopular decisions with little or no political payoff.

The thing about this budget deal is that nobody would be happy with the outcome. If Democrats win, they walk away by raising some people's taxes. If Republicans win, they will cut deep into the spending of programs that are enormously popular throughout large parts of the electorate. The willingness of representatives and senators to take unpopular action is the best sign that the institution can fix national problems and not simply reward constituents.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



A budget deal could also show that bipartisanship is not impossible in our current era of polarization. The inability to achieve bipartisan legislation has been one of the biggest failings of Congress. When there has been bipartisan agreement in recent years on domestic policy, it has usually meant that two or three people come on board from the other side of the aisle.

The era when Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen could bring over 20 or more colleagues for legislation proposed by a Democratic president, back in the 1960s, seems long gone.

The virtue of bipartisan deals is that they create bills that are more durable over time and have the imprint of a broader portion of the American public. Bipartisan votes on legislation demonstrate that support for a bill is not red or blue, but red, white and blue.

Americans already making big decisions over cliff

Boehner & Obama talk one-on-one
Lessons on how Congress can compromise

A budget deal could show that it is possible to have responsible partisanship. In recent decades, public debate has revolved around whether it is better to have a partisan divide, where Democrats and Republicans offer voters clear alternatives, or bipartisanship, where both sides find areas of agreement.

The alternate path is responsible partisanship, whereby the parties are willing to sign onto bills where each loses something significant. They must abide by Senator Dirksen's maxim: "I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times." Responsible partisanship would offer voters the best of both worlds -- a partisan system with the capacity for governance.

So the budget deal can be a big deal, not only for the nation but also for restoring public trust in Congress. If Congress fails to reach a deal on its own, or if it tries to kick the issue down the road by extending the deadline, the chances are that the terrible perceptions of the legislative branch will only get worse.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT