This town, sullen and self-absorbed

Sep 27 2013, 00:04 IST
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SummaryAs their leaders meet, Indians and Americans are preoccupied with the need to renew and reform their domestic political systems.

As their leaders meet, Indians and Americans are preoccupied with the need to renew and reform their domestic political systems.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will find a gloomy, sullen and self-absorbed Washington when he visits the US capital today. Disappointment and disillusion with President Barack Obama is widespread among his friends. His political adversaries are far harsher.

Washington is still reeling from last week’s shooting rampage that killed 12 navy employees. More fundamentally, many Americans are asking whether their system works any longer, and whether their moment in the sun has passed. Under these circumstances, the prime minister will have to compete with other US preoccupations for the attention of politicians, officials and the media.

The government’s fiscal year ends next Monday, but Congress has not adopted a budget nor authorised any government spending for the year beginning October 1. Tea party activists talk cheerfully of shutting down the government next week because new spending has not been approved. Even if that deadline is successfully passed, the treasury faces default and a credit downgrade a few weeks later, unless Congress lifts limits on the amount of money the government may borrow. Congress’s inability to resolve these pressing budget issues is linked to the continued passions surrounding Obama’s landmark healthcare programme, enacted into law three years ago. Congressional Republicans have held more than 40 votes to overturn the law, most recently last week, even though they know that neither the Senate nor the White House will support repeal.

Washington is more badly polarised between the two parties than at any time in memory, but that’s only part of the challenge. Party leaders cannot control even their own members. Obama faces opposition from Democratic legislators over his threat to use military force against Syria, and liberals complain that he is too willing to negotiate with the Republicans on domestic spending. On the Republican side, many backbenchers in the House of Representatives are in open rebellion against the budget plan favoured by their leaders. House Speaker John Boehner’s worst nightmares are caused not by Democrats, but by the sizeable group of House Republicans who support Tea Party-backed slash-and-burn tactics.

Indeed, the dysfunction of the House Republicans makes Democratic infighting look positively tame. But any Democratic inclination to sit back and enjoy the GOP spectacle ought to be stifled; while the politicians squabble, the country’s serious problems only worsen.

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