Unfortunately - but not surprisingly - many of the things that happened in Washington this year did the U.S. economy more harm than good.
More than two years after the official end to the recession, the U.S. economy is still suffering through sluggish growth and an 8.6% unemployment rate.
"They've been wrong from the beginning, and they're still wrong," said Money Morning Chief Investment Strategist Keith Fitz-Gerald of U.S. government policymakers. "It makes you wonder if any of these people passed Economics 101."
That said, here are five of the government's worst economic blunders of 2011:
- The Debt Ceiling Crisis: While Congress did step back from the brink of plunging the nation into default, the fear and uncertainty resulting from the battle over raising the debt ceiling unnerved stock markets and was the main reason Standard & Poor's cut the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+ for the first time ever. The worst part of it was that the whole battle was unnecessary. Congress votes often to raise the nation's debt ceiling, a necessity to keep borrowing the 40% of the federal budget not covered by receipts.
- The Bungled Federal Budget: In mid-January, the federal government will have operated without an official budget for 1,000 days. The lack of a real budget makes it harder for government agencies to plan, as funding depends on a series of "continuing resolutions" by Congress. Failure to pass one of these stopgap measures would result in a government shutdown, which both Republicans and Democrats have used as a threat to try to force the other party's hand. Even worse, lawmakers argued about, but ultimately took no action on, reducing the crippling $15 trillion national debt or the huge annual deficits that keep driving it higher. Both are anchors on the U.S. economy.
- The U.S. Federal Reserve's Loose Money Policies: Led by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the central bank has used every policy tool at its disposal to flood the U.S. economy with money in a futile effort to spur growth. Not only has it held interest rates near zero for more than two years, but it has conducted two "quantitative easing" bond-buying programs (not to mention mortgage-backed securities). Those policies have failed to implement either of the Fed's dual mandates to hold down the unemployment rate and control inflation.
- U.S. President Barack Obama's Jobs Bill: Despite a lot of dramatic rhetoric, President Obama's American Jobs Act was more of a re-election ploy than a serious attempt to deal with the high U.S. unemployment rate. The president knew Republicans would object to many of its provisions, as well as its hefty $447 billion price tag, but also knew those same provisions would appeal to his political base. Even if it had passed intact, economists said it would at best lower unemployment only by a single percentage point.
- The Payroll Tax Cut: While the House Republicans were foolish to fight the Senate and President Obama on the deal that was made to extend the payroll tax cut for two months, they were right about one thing: Any extension should have been for the full calendar year. Instead of resolving the issue, Congress merely postponed the fight over further extending the 2% cut in the Social Security tax deduction until February. Apart from that, who thought putting money into Americans' pockets by lowering payments into the already-threatened Social Security Trust fund was a good idea? Talk about mortgaging the future.