At the first glance it seems ludicrous to be comparing the legislative body of the world’s number one political and economic power, with that of number 84 - the small and dysfunctional Republic of Lebanon. But the partial shutdown of America’s government this week begs the question on whether the U.S.113th congress is more ineffective than the Lebanese parliament which is naturally shutdown.
By failing to pass a budget and shutting down the “non-essential” part of the federal government, which amounts to 800,000 workers, it has all added up to cost some $800 million a day since Tuesday. The U.S. Congress might have just surpassed Lebanon’s parliament with regards to self-inflicting harm and uselessness. And that is saying a lot for a parliament like Lebanon’s, which has only convened three times this year. The last time was to postpone its own elections and automatically renew the term of its unaccountable 128 members.
Between Boehner and Berri
Perhaps, Lebanon’s legendary speaker of the house Nabih Berri can most empathize with his American counterpart Republican leader John Boehner, to a higher degree than anyone outside the United States. Berri, the third longest-serving speaker in the world’s history (21 years and counting), knows what it’s like to be against the public, cornered by the opposition and faced by fractures and divisions within your own alliance.
It is no wonder that both the U.S. Congress and the Lebanese Parliament are hugely unpopularJoyce Karam
Both Boehner and Berri know how it feels to have a very thin legislative record. Berri has not been able to convene the Lebanese parliament more than six times in the last two years, with parliamentarians from opposing blocs preempting the sessions with conditions that would surely prevent them from happening. Boehner, on the other hand, has only had 40 legislations since taking office in January 2011, according to CNN. He could not even pass a Hurricane relief bill on time this year. He has little control over his party members, and much less over the 435 House representatives.
If Boehner has a Tea Party problem (a group of around 49 far right Republican representatives who are largely blamed for the shutdown), Lebanon is in a worse situation as almost everyone in the Lebanese Parliament behaves like the Tea Party. Blackmailing, setting conditions and adopting earmarks are part of the daily politicking ritual in Lebanon, practiced by everyone from Hezbollah to Aoun to the March 14 political blocs. This dynamic has given the word stalemate a new meaning in both Beirut and Washington. The crippling process in Lebanon has prolonged the government vacuum since last March, while the U.S. government is being forced to partially halt its activities as the Republican members link the fate of its budget to the healthcare law, enacted in 2010.
Yet, the Lebanese parliament can claim superiority over the U.S. Congress when it comes to passing budgets. Even when levels of partisanship are skyrocketing, and the specter of civil war is returning, a government shutdown is not an option in Lebanon and there are laws to prevent it from taking place. Unlike the U.S., if a consensus is not reached on a new annual budget, the leadership of the Parliament and the government can resort to what is known as the “12th rule,” which automatically puts into effect the last agreed budget of the year before as the current one.
It’s a measure that has prevented shutdowns in many consecutive governments since the year 2000, and has kept services open. A Lebanese politician recently visiting Washington even contemplated offering the U.S. some budget advice on adopting its own “12th rule.” Since 1974, there have been nine government shutdowns in the United States, with the most debilitating ones coming during the “Republican revolution” against the Bill Clinton administration in 1995-1996. The level of partisanship inside the U.S., and the lack of budgetary agreements, make it unlikely that this kind of confrontation will fade away anytime soon.
It is no wonder that both the U.S. Congress and the Lebanese Parliament are hugely unpopular. The first shuts down the government over a healthcare law and the second is clinically shutdown because of a dysfunctional political environment. Congress’ popularity stands at 10% today and Lebanese parliamentarians are hurled at with tomatoes when, and if, they meet. Both legislative bodies are promoting a toxic political dynamic that goes against the primary interest of their people.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam