What the hell is going on in Congress?
I have been (kind of) following the posturing that has been going on over the efforts to pass a continuing resolution bill by October 1. The normal budgetary process of passing the 12 appropriation bills to fund the government for the next fiscal year has long since broken down. In its place we now have the practice of passing continuing resolutions at the last minute that essentially says that we continue doing what was done the previous year. The idea of the budget being also a planning document that determines the priorities for the coming year has gone out the window and we seem to have entered a Groundhog Day world where each year repeats the previous one, at least in budgetary terms. In fact, we should really consider this the new normal, since the chances of Congress ever getting its act together enough to do its most basic function, pass a budget, seem increasingly remote.
Then of course there is the less regular event of raising the debt ceiling limit. This is the legislation allowing the government to borrow money to pay for the spending that Congress has already approved. It would seem like this would be automatic for Congress, since it is the way of meeting the obligations that Congress itself has already committed to and has already incurred. (For those who are interested, I attempted to give a brief tutorial on this topic the last time a similar situation arose, which was two years ago. If you want to know how much money the government has in its account on a daily basis, see here. On September 25, the government started the day with $55 billion, got $13 billion in income and had $22 billion in expenditure, leaving it with a balance at the end of the day of $46 billion.)
But the raising of the debt ceiling has somehow got twisted to look as if it is some form of free money, a blank check, given to the government to incur new expenditures and the Republicans in Congress are balking at doing so. This behavior is like taking a loan to purchase a house and then refusing to pay the monthly mortgage. Raising the debt ceiling is being falsely portrayed as encouraging wasteful spending. Furthermore, the annual deficit has in fact been falling quite sharply, suggesting that future raising of the debt ceiling will be for smaller amount s and further spread apart and may disappear altogether. There is, in short, no crisis over the national debt.
And the bizarre thing is that all this drama over the debt ceiling and the continuing resolution is driven by an attempt to eliminate Obamacare, even though this is a law that was properly passed by Congress and signed by the president. Somehow the extremists in the Republican party view Obamacare as some kind of demon possessing the soul of America and unless it is exorcised immediately, the nation is doomed.
But repealing legislation by normal means is usually harder than passing it, especially when the opponents of repeal control one house of Congress and also possess the presidential veto. Republicans have essentially decided that the only way to do that is by hostage taking and holding a gun to the head of the hostage (the government) and threatening to shut it down on October 1 (by not passing a continuing resolution) and/or having the government default on its obligations on or around October 17 (by not raising the debt ceiling) unless they get their demands.
As with all hostage taking, there is a ransom note. And what does the latest note say?
In return for a one-year suspension of the debt ceiling, House Republicans are demanding a yearlong delay of Obamacare, Rep. Paul Ryan’s tax reform plan, the Keystone XL pipeline, more offshore oil drilling, more drilling on federally protected lands, rewriting of ash coal regulations, a suspension of the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate carbon emissions, more power over the regulatory process in general, reform of the federal employee retirement program, an overhaul of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, more power over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s budget, repeal of the Social Services Block Grant, more means-testing in Medicare, repeal of the Public Health trust fund, and more.
As Jonathan Chait says,
Does that list sound vaguely familiar? It’s Mitt Romney’s 2012 economic plan. Almost word for word, in fact.
The fact that a major party could even propose anything like this is a display of astonishing contempt for democratic norms. Republicans ran on this plan and lost by 5 million votes. They also lost the Senate and received a million fewer votes in the House but held control owing to favorable district lines. Is there an example in American history of a losing party issuing threats to force the majority party to implement its rejected agenda?
The Daily Show explains why the Republicans are so afraid of Obamacare. It is not because they fear that it will fail and thus destroy the country and its health system. It is that they are afraid that it will succeed and that Americans will come to like it so much that they will never allow it to be repealed even if the party wins the presidency and both houses of Congress.
(This clip aired on September 24, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)
So there you have it. We now have a situation where any semblance of normal governance is abandoned. By normal governance I mean that the losing party bides its time until it regains power to implement its own agenda. Now we have one party that insists on its agenda whether it wins or loses and the American system of government allows them to threaten to actually cause the government to stop functioning if they don’t get their way.
Hostage taking situations are resolved by giving in to the demands, the hostage takers agreeing to some kind of deal, or the hostage dying. The problem is that this form of brinksmanship has been played so many times now that most ordinary people seem to be weary of this game of political chicken and it has ceased to frighten them, though political and economic insiders are seriously concerned about the consequences of both a shut down and a default.
Given the lack of public outcry against the hostage takers, they may well feel that there is no price to be paid for killing the hostage and thus may be emboldened enough that a shut down of the government may well happen. What happens then will determine what happens to the subsequent debt ceiling vote.