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Congress earns its low marks

Nearly every poll conducted about Congress in recent years has had one common factor -- Americans are far from happy with the performance of these 535 men and women who we have elected to represent us at the nation's Capitol.

In fact, no matter how far the president -- whether he's George W. Bush or Barack Obama -- sinks in the public opinion, Congress is invariably ranked lower.

Over the years, Congress has proven that the idealism exemplified in the Jimmy Stewart classic movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the idea that government, in the end, is focused on the people and will do the right thing, is as fictional as the never-named state from which Stewart's fictional Jefferson Smith is sent to sort out things on Capitol Hill with disarming common sense and powerful personal ethics.

If that film were to ever get remade and injected with a dose of realism, you'd have to wonder whether the newly minted Sen. Smith wouldn't just pitch in with the corrupt Sen. Joseph Paine and kingmaker Jim Taylor, ditch the Boy Rangers camp, get his cut of the payoff and then hit the talk show circuit to hawk his new biography detailing his first month in the Senate.

However the credit ceiling negotiations play out, they have exemplified the shortcomings of Congress's ability to deal thoughtfully and wisely with critical issues. The reason America was faced with the problem in the first place is Congress's inability to balance its national checkbook.

Given the choice of telling a potential voter or -- worse yet, a special interest group -- no, members of Congress yank out the national Visa card indiscriminately and run up the balance.

Now, when you hit your credit limit, you have to either persuade the financial institution that issued the credit to raise your limit or you quit borrowing. Congress, however, has the unique ability to vote itself a higher limit, and it has done that numerous times. And that's not just a Democratic Party tactic. Congress has done it when the Republican Party was in charge, too.

Apparently, when you can write your own loan, even when you're placing 40 percent of your living expenses on credit, there's not much incentive to live within your means.

There is no question that the federal government has to get its financial house in order. The only debates should be how the goals of balanced annual budgets and significant paydown of the national debt will be achieved.

The concern of many is that when this current debt ceiling crisis -- one the federal government created for itself -- is over and the White House and control of Congress again comes into play in the 2012 elections, our leaders in Washington will forget about balanced budgets and reducing debt, and again write checks they can't cash to preserve their jobs and their party's status. Our representatives and senators in the federal Legislature will give lip service to fiscally sound policy, promising cuts tomorrow for extra dollars today.

The problem is, when tomorrow comes, the cuts never do, just another promise and another bid for additional funds.

This is an opportunity for statesmanship to trump politics, but, unfortunately, the smart money is on the triumph of politics.

Congress should have the intestinal fortitude to do like Georgia and other states who require that their legislatures have balanced budgets. As bad as the recession hit our state, it would have been even more devastating if our state government hadn't been under a balanced budget requirement. Ask California how the other way works.

It's time for Congress to adopt its own rules -- sans the fuzzy math it likes so much -- to require itself to balance the federal budget every year. Failing that, it's time for Americans to take the decision out of Congress's hands and amend the Constitution to require it.