Tag Archives: debt ceiling

Playing the blame game

Courtesy of The New York Times.
Courtesy of The New York Times.

Much ink has been spilled over the relative blame that should be assigned to various parties in the current government shutdown / impending debt-ceiling fiasco from hell. (About that spilled ink, I’m speaking virtually, of course: no one still publishes on physical paper anymore, do they?)

Aside from the predictable litany of “both sides need to compromise” bullshit from the zombie lords of political commentary — which The Atlantic‘s James Fallows, Al Jazeera‘s Dan Froomkin, and NYU professor Jay Rosen continue to eviscerate brilliantly — perhaps most distressing still are the results of today’s Gallup poll:

Americans are now more likely to name dysfunctional government as the most important problem facing the country than to name any other specific problem. Thirty-three percent of Americans cite dissatisfaction with government and elected representatives as the nation’s top issue, the highest such percentage in Gallup’s trend dating back to 1939. Dysfunctional government now eclipses the economy (19%), unemployment (12%), the deficit (12%), and healthcare (12%) as the nation’s top problem.

This is, in its own way, tantamount to a Republican victory — and one that could have more profound long-term implications than whatever short-term turbulence the GOP has inflicted upon itself courtesy of its decreasingly fringe-y “wacko bird” fringe. Indeed, although early indications suggest that House Republicans may suffer for their intransigence in next year’s midterms, there are plenty of reasons to bet against the Democrats’ chances of retaking the lower chamber in 2014.

Meanwhile, the broader national disgust with governmental dysfunction plays directly into Republicans’ hands: in fact, it could be argued that the GOP will always have a home-field advantage of sorts over the Democrats when the two parties are at loggerheads over just about anything of consequence. When bitterly contested policy issues cause Americans to blame government generally (even if, as is the case now, one side is clearly precipitating the immediate crisis), Republican ideology wins the day. Time will tell if this triumph is more durable than the Democrats’ current advantage in generic horse-race Congressional polling.

But there is yet another component to this struggle that’s extremely apparent but is somehow not gaining the traction I’d expect, especially from left-leaning media outlets. And that is the direct line connecting President Obama’s decision to negotiate the debt-ceiling increase in the summer of 2011 with the current crisis. While there is no question that Republican lunacy is the immediate cause of the budgetary and debt-ceiling impasses, much longer-term blame rests directly on the shoulders of Barack Obama.

Today’s manufactured crisis was an entirely foreseeable outcome of Obama’s capitulation two years ago. In fact, Paul Krugman predicted exactly this sort of future as soon as the 2011 deal with Republicans was announced. In an August 1, 2011 column titled “The President Surrenders,” Krugman wrote:

For the deal itself, given the available information, is a disaster, and not just for President Obama and his party. It will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status.

Republicans will supposedly have an incentive to make concessions the next time around, because defense spending will be among the areas cut. But the G.O.P. has just demonstrated its willingness to risk financial collapse unless it gets everything its most extreme members want. Why expect it to be more reasonable in the next round?

In fact, Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats. He surrendered last December, extending all the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling.

And this is exactly what ended up happening. Two days ago, Jonathan Chait explained this very phenomenon:

They see the debt-ceiling fight as being mainly about the long-term question of whether Congress will cement into place the practice of using the debt ceiling to extort concessions from the president. The price of buying off a debt-ceiling hike would surely be less than the risk of a default. But doing so would enshrine debt-ceiling extortion as a normal congressional practice. This both skews the Constitutional relationship between branches — allowing an unscrupulous Congress to demand unilateral concessions at gunpoint rather than having to compromise — and creates endless brinksmanship that would eventually lead to a default.

The administration’s stance, then, is that submitting to ransom now creates the certainty of default eventually.

The primary quibble I have with Chait’s explanation — as I do with most analyses I’ve read of the situation thus far — is that the time to establish this stance was two years ago, not now. Of course, now is better than never, but the risk of actual default does appear to be greater now than it was back in 2011, and this is primarily due to Republicans’ increased confidence — based on very recent history — that the White House and Congressional Democrats would simply capitulate once again. And this very expectation, paradoxically enough, made it more dangerous for the Democrats to actually stand firm and demand that the Republicans raise the debt limit without preconditions — precisely because the overly-confident Republicans had virtually locked themselves into a rhetorical corner over raising the debt ceiling.

So what’s the point? Aside from the fact that President Obama is quite clearly a disastrous negotiator, the primary point is that — contrary to “centrist” notions of endless compromise that are entirely unmoored from the empirical reality of each party’s ideological flexibility — giving away the bank to a party steered by radicals absolutely does not guarantee healthy compromises or even engender good-faith efforts in the future. To the contrary, when confronted head-on with the awesome incoherence of Tea Party rage, the worst possible weapon is the one President Obama wielded back in 2011: procrastination.

Our useless, do-nothing Congress

Mitch McConnellWondering what your favorite elected representatives are up to these days? Ask no more:

For public consumption, Democrats and Republicans are engaging in an increasingly elaborate show of political theater. Mr. Obama on Thursday went to the home of a middle-income family in the Virginia suburbs of Washington to press for an extension of expiring tax cuts for the middle class — and for the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts on incomes over $250,000.

“Just to be clear, I’m not going to sign any package that somehow prevents the top rate from going up for folks at the top 2 percent,” Mr. Obama said. “But I do remain optimistic that we can get something done.”

On Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, moved Thursday to vote on Mr. Obama’s proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress’s control over the federal government’s statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president. Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found they had 51 solid votes, and took Mr. McConnell up on what Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called “a positive development.”

Mr. McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.

“I do believe we made history on the Senate floor today,” Mr. Durbin said.

Yes, Mr. Durbin, you did make history. But not just today: your current session of Congress conducted the most useless, unproductive, and inefficient use of time in our national legislature since at least 1947.

And no, I’m not just picking on Durbin. Most of the ongoing stalemate in both the House and Senate since 2009 has been the result of Republican obstinacy and intransigence — in other words, their complete denial of the reality that continues to hit them in the face regularly at four-year intervals. (In fact, of the last six presidential elections, Republicans have lost the popular vote five times.) So this is hardly a balanced phenomenon.

But there’s just something about being a senator or representative — from either party — that turns otherwise competent, reasonably intelligent human beings into overgrown children in suits and ties. No, Mr. Durbin, nothing you did today amounts to anything more than a slow, inexorable advancement of the news cycle. Your sole accomplishment in this regard is to fill the airtime on the cable news networks so they don’t have to spend those few hours discussing something even more frivolous than a predestined-to-fail bill proposed in the Senate. (And you probably didn’t even realize that was possible.)

As for Mr. McConnell, there are almost no words to describe his ongoing disastrous behavior. The resident senatorial turkey was too clever for his own good, bluffing that he’d like to go ahead with a vote on ending Congress’ power over the debt ceiling, then filibustering his own bill when it turned out the Democrats had a solid majority.

“Political theater” is right. But it’s a damn ugly performance, and one all Americans are paying for, whether or not we even realized we were attending the show.

Thoughts on the debt ceiling

It looks like we may avert a debt disaster after all. Of course, this will come at a heavy price, namely deep cuts which will stifle an already nearly-dead recovery. Furthermore, this proposed agreement would include approximately $2.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade with absolutely no increased revenue. Considering the GOP currently controls one-half of one-third of our national government, this is a Republican coup de grâce if there ever was one.

Below are my thoughts, adopted from an email I wrote yesterday to friends.

Most people in this country believe that the debt ceiling allows us to spend more money, take on bigger obligations, etc. This is not the case, and is a hugely important distinction, especially because almost everyone doesn’t realize this (unless they follow the debate closely, which most Americans don’t). It simply allows us to pay for our existing debt obligations. Obama loves to use the analogy of someone who buys a car, drives it off the lot, and then refuses to make his monthly car payments. In that case, the debt ceiling is hit when he fails to make a payment, not when he tries to buy a new car.

Interestingly, I think it was in the Economist that someone mentioned that the debt ceiling itself is an archaic and almost obsolete invention, and only the US and Denmark, I believe, use it (although, true to stereotype, the Danish are much more timely about getting it raised).

But the point is, the debt ceiling represents money we’ve already spent. Increased spending down the road is an entirely separate issue. (Ironically, if we do default on our debts, the nation’s debt is going to increase significantly due to interest rate hikes alone.) Furthermore, Republicans raised the debt limit 7 times under Bush, 11 times under Reagan, etc. and, while the potential of its raising has occasionally been used as a cudgel to enact small reforms, the threat of default has never yet been wielded to my knowledge. Many like to bring up the fact that Obama voted against raising the debt limit in 2006, for which he has since (conveniently) expressed regret, but it is important to note that he did so in protest against a then-assured debt ceiling increase (in a Congress in which both houses were controlled by the GOP). There is a huge difference between taking a symbolic no vote against certain passage and actually holding the nation hostage until one’s own rigid policy prescriptions are implemented, the threat of default be damned.

Finally, in that we do have a debt ceiling and in that it does represent existing — not future — spending, it might be helpful to take a look at who’s contributed the most to its ever-increasing levels and draw one’s own conclusions about fiscal hypocrisy.

Debt ceiling hijinks?

So if this is simply a Republican negotiating tactic, yesterday would be a good time to get serious.

And now it’s almost tomorrow. Or, to borrow a movie title in the service of a horrible cliche, it’s almost The Day After Tomorrow.