We're all at the mercy of this US circus

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 3:26am

Some choice words have been used to describe the brinkmanship across a US Congress that led us to the edge of the American "fiscal cliff" - "shenanigans", "circus", "omnishambles". Certainly few are pretending that it represents the festival of democracy envisaged by America's higher motives.

We are left to yet again reflect on the statement of an anonymous Illinois state senator in 1898 that "the making of laws is like the making of sausages - the less you know about the process, the more you respect the result".

I use the collective noun deliberately - one of the great frustrations of many of us across Asia is the ability of the US Congress to blithely affect our lives at a stroke, ruling in part as it does over the world's largest economy. This time around the sigh of collective relief over Monday's last-ditch deal was palpable - just look at the region's stock markets.

By contrast, the White House and State Department - as well as the vast intelligence community that serves them - must constantly take stock of the impact of US policy and Washington's place in the world. But the congressman can, if he chooses, legislate in happy ignorance, wallowing in pork-barrel politics as he plots re-election to represent his congressional district or state. Any international consideration is often governed only by specific pressure groups and minorities in his constituency.

It is no wonder that tens of millions are spent by foreign countries to discreetly lobby the US Congress and fund envoys in some of the finest real estate in Washington, often to little effect. Just look at the ways even US allies can find themselves on the wrong end of punishing trade measures.

Of course, there are elected representatives - both Republican and Democrat - who take pride in their internationalist outlook. Veteran Senator John Kerry - poised to replace Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State - is one example.

But for the most part, US congressmen live by the aphorism of their late House speaker Tip O'Neill: "All politics is local".

It is a brutal fact of life for Asia in an ever-more interconnected world. Sausage factory? Sometimes the US Congress - now hamstrung by historic levels of polarisation - is not even that good.