The United States is now just over two weeks away from a plunge over the "fiscal cliff" — that is, unless Congress can agree on a deal to prevent automatic tax hikes and spending cuts in the new year. But once again, Congress seems headed for the brink.
That's been happening more and more in recent years. And it was noted sadly by a string of retiring senators as they were bidding their colleagues farewell this past week.
At 88, Hawaii Democrat Daniel Akaka is the eldest of the six Democrats and seven Republicans who won't return to the Senate next year. Akaka is a quiet and gentle man, and he had some Pacific Islander advice for his colleagues as he prepared to leave the Senate after 24 years:
"In Congress and in our nation, we're truly all together in the same canoe. If we paddle together in unison, we can travel great distances. If the two sides of the canoe paddle in opposite directions, we will go in circles."
While Akaka is retiring by choice, Indiana's Richard Lugar, who at 80 is the Senate's oldest Republican, hoped for a seventh term. A moderate who's a foreign policy expert, Lugar lost his primary to a Tea Party-backed challenger, who in turn lost the election to a moderate Democrat. Last week, Lugar told colleagues their prime responsibility is to follow their own best judgment:
"Too often in recent years, members of Congress have locked themselves into a slate of inflexible positions — many of which have no hope of being implemented in a divided government."
As he bid his farewell after four terms in the Senate, Democrat turned independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut had this advice for colleagues: Put country and constituents ahead of the dictates of party and ideology.
"I regret to say as I leave the Senate that the greatest obstacle that I see standing between us and the brighter American future we all want is right here in Washington. It's the partisan polarization of our politics."
Like Lieberman, Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson preferred retirement to a tough re-election battle. In his farewell, Nelson made no bones about frequently crossing the political aisle to get things done:
"Congress needs to change its math. By that, I mean members of Congress should be more concerned about addition and multiplication, and less involved in division and subtraction that seems to overtake this institution at times."
After 26 years in a Senate that has not passed one budget in the past three years, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad is also calling it quits. Last week on the Senate floor, the North Dakota Democrat said too much time is spent in Washington seeking partisan advantage and too little actually trying to solve problems. But Conrad added that he's not one of those who leaves the Senate as a critic:
"I leave this institution with enormous respect. The United States Senate is the greatest deliberative body in the world. And the vast majority of my colleagues, I sincerely believe, are serious-minded and have the best interests of the country at heart."
Like Conrad, Olympia Snowe has long hewed close to the political center. The Republican maverick from Maine grew so frustrated with Senate gridlock, she decided she'd had enough.
"I worry we are losing the art of legislating," she said.
In her valedictory, Snowe said she's seen the potential of government as an instrument for common good, but she's also experienced its capacity for serial dysfunction:
"And as I've traveled throughout Maine and America, even overseas, people would stop me and ask me: 'What has happened? Has it always been this way?' And I tell them, I'm so passionate about changing the tenor in Congress because I've seen that it can be different. It hasn't always been this way, and it absolutely does not have to be this way."
Still, the departure of Snowe and other political moderates may not bode well for a Senate where little gets done without bipartisan cooperation.