Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 July 2011

Gang Rule, or Government by Extortion

[For a sample letter to your representatives in Congress to avert default, and the reasons to send it, click here. For a brief comment on Elizabeth Warren’s possible Senate run, click here.]

For several weeks, I have been trying to come up with a pithy and accurate description of what Republicans have become. Recent events have helped me.

They’re no longer a political party. Parties act in the nation’s best interests and compromise for the sake of national progress. They’re not quite an insane asylum, although the Tea-Party wing appears to approach one. They still have some sane but misguided members.

For all his many flaws, even John Boehner appears to have made some effort to accomplish something real in the last two weeks. His closest approach to a “grand bargain” would barely have paid the interest on our national debt. But at least he tried.

The GOP is not a cult. Cults primarily harm themselves. The Jonestown drinkers of poisoned Kool-Aid, for example, killed themselves but no one else.

So what have the GOP become? I think a gang, and an inept and unruly one at that.

You can think of the GOP as a not-too-bright wing of the Mafia. Facing a divided government and the complete failure of their ideology over the past decade—if not the last thirty years—they recently came up with a brilliant plan: extortion.

Do things our way, they say, or we’ll use our control of the House to cause a national default. Do exactly what we say, or we’ll shoot the whole country. As chief GOP apologist David Brooks wrote three weeks ago (it seems like a century!), this makes them “not fit to govern.”

Already they have failed at extortion once, trying to get a “grand bargain” to reduce the debt with all cuts and no revenue. Now, with the nation on the brink of a real default for the first time in modern history, they are at it again. To see how, watch or read Gwen Ifill’s extraordinary interview with Rep. Peter Roskam (R. Ill.) last night. [Scroll down for a transcript.]

Roskam followed presidential adviser David Plouffe, who had reiterated the President’s consistent and principled opposition to any short-term debt-limit increase. As Plouffe noted, a short-term “solution” would force us to go through this whole dangerous and distracting farce again early next year.

When Ifill asked Roskam about the President’s opposition, he just blew it off.
“Ultimately, what's bringing everybody together on all of these votes is the notion that Aug. 2 is a date of consequence that has to be dealt with. So, I wouldn't submit that there's any, you know, political posturing and other nonsense. . . . And that's where I think John Boehner is trying to lead. And I think, ultimately, that [Boehner’ short-term bill] will be a successful effort.”
He completely ignored the President’s threat to veto any such bill, as well as the Senate Majority Leader’s assessment that it would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate.

Roskam predicted that everyone would toe the GOP line, despite the President’s and Senate Majority Leader’s clear statements to the contrary and a Democratic majority in the Senate, far more than needed for a filibuster. In other words, he predicted that in divided government, the boldest extortionist will win.

Roskam seized on the fact that Plouffe had dodged repeating the President’s veto threat in the immediately preceding interview. On this basis, he concluded: “[White House staff] have obviously left the door open because they know this bill is going to end up on President Obama’s desk.”

Roskam is articulate and personally attractive. He didn’t shout or declaim. But you could say the same about Marlon Brando in his role as Mafia Don in “The Godfather.” Brando’s soft, hoarse voice only accentuated his menace. Neither man shouted or screamed, but both made their extortion threats absolutely clear. Roskam’s message was simply this: our way or national default; take your pick.

Of course neither the Senate nor the President can give in to this bullying. Not only would it replay this entire fiasco in a few short months, with similar effects on our national finances, international confidence, and global markets. It would also embolden the extortionists, who are already holding the FAA hostage, causing a loss of millions of dollars of air-travel tax revenue and the stoppage of construction work at airports around the country. And then there’s Richard Shelby (R., Ala.), the arch-extortionist senator, who has placed over 70 holds on the President’s appointments in order to extract concessions to his right-wing ideology and his backward state.

When dealing with bullies, Rule One is “don’t give in”. Everyone who has faced a bully on the playground as a kid knows that. It’s Bullying 1A.

Yield to extortion once, and the bully’s demands know no end. Stand up and fight, and the bullying stops, even if you lose. And if you’re too small or weak to stand up yourself, you get a few friends and jump the bully after school.

I’m sorry to say it, but that sort of schoolyard strategy is what the GOP have reduced us to. It may be puerile. It may be crazy. It definitely makes us a laughingstock before the world. And whether or not it causes default, it will hasten the day when the world dumps our dollar as a universal currency and the basis for oil prices.

That, of course, means inflation for us as far as the eye can see. But it’s the reality of Republicans’ utter disregard for the nation’s welfare as they seek to magnify their minority power with gangster tactics.

Already the Gang’s back-to-back extortion attempts have damaged the FAA, our credit rating, our international leadership (if any remains), our stock market, global bond markets, and our own confidence in ourselves. If the Senate and the President give in, it will never end. The entire globe will begin to spurn us as irrational, driven by fringe groups and unreliable.

So giving in is unthinkable. If Roskam’s pipe dream somehow comes true, and the Boehner bill comes to the President’s desk, he must veto it. If he cannot bring himself to do that, he might as well resign, for all the power he will have until next November, and for all the good his presidency will do the country.

Avoiding default at all costs cannot be our first national priority, especially now that the GOP’s extended extortion attempts already have caused some of default’s consequences, including a likely lower credit rating. Stopping the Gang before they destroy our country must be our first priority.

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