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Filler: Why Congress reminds me of 'Groundhog Day'

President Barack Obama meets with Senate Minority Leader

President Barack Obama meets with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. on June 18, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Alex Wong

With a recent Rasmussen Reports survey showing the approval rating for Congress at 8 percent, there are two easy ways for the truly lazy columnist to go:

List things we like more than Congress: dark-brown bananas, the 1977 double album "William Shatner Live!" and hand-to-hand combat with the spouse over thermostat settings.

Explore who the 8 percent who approve of Congress are. Unusually positive citizens who approve of everything ("Don't you just love a good blizzard, when the power goes out for a few days?"). Personally, I'm guessing it's just people who benefit from federal contracts.

But I'm fixated on why the approval rating is so low, and I believe it's because Congress has become a version of the movie "Groundhog Day," only instead of a whimsical plot featuring Bill Murray, Chris Elliott and Andie MacDowell, we're watching Sen. Harry Reid and Speaker John Boehner act out a script about raising the alternative minimum tax, again and again.

Congress never seems to settle anything, even when the solution is so obvious even politicians could grasp it. Take the federal minimum wage, established in 1938 at 25 cents an hour. Ever since, we've been subjected to occasional donnybrooks between conservatives ("Paying people more is a jobs killer, ya commie!!!") and liberals ("Not paying people more is a people killer, ya pro-starvation jerkwad!!!").

Hardly anyone thinks the minimum wage should be abolished. And I've never heard a politician advocate it being lowered. But the minimum wage is reduced every year that it's not increased, in a real-money sense, because it's not indexed to inflation. The federal minimum wage of $7.25, which went into effect in 2009, is now worth $6.54 in 2009 dollars.

So how 'bout next time we raise the minimum wage, we index it to inflation, and NEVER, EVER DISCUSS THE MINIMUM WAGE AGAIN. And construct the bill so that voting "nay" is a vote for abolishing the minimum wage, because that's what people against the indexing really want, and they should be forced to argue it on that basis.

Then there's the federal gasoline tax, which we use to pay for controversial items like highways and bridges. That tax has been at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. That means it has declined to 11.2 cents worth of purchasing power today. The list of bridges that desperately need work is nearly identical to a list of all bridges in the United States. And every time Democrats try to raise that tax, Republicans respond as if the Democrats want taxes on prayer to fund free marijuana for atheist gay couples.

But I'm not seeing a movement to abolish the gas tax, or lower it. So if we agree it is a sensible way to pay for something crucial, why would we let it decline every year? Index it to inflation, and never discuss it again.

And then there's debt. Did you ever notice that you never hear state governments, counties or school districts debating whether they should raise debt limits? That's because their debt limits generally rise over time with a particular metric, like revenue or the value of assessed property. So let's set the federal debt limit at, say, 120 percent of gross domestic product, around where it is now, or 100 percent, or 140 if that's where the debate takes us, and never talk about it again.

In "Groundhog Day," Murray's weatherman character broke his cycle and finally came to a new day, Feb. 3, once he'd learned to be wonderful by living the previous day over and over. I'd feel better if Congress were learning anything by endlessly reliving the same debates.

Where is Andie MacDowell when you need her?

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


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