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

30 July 2011

Gripping Political Theater

Have the congressional antics of the last three weeks all been political theater? Are we going to have a “miraculous” increase in the debt limit at the final hour, or maybe after a mere “technical” default of a few days, with no bond interest unpaid and no damage done to bondholders?

Quite possibly. The contours of that outcome are now becoming apparent even to our mass media.

Everyone knew that the “Boehner bill” that passed last night after the markets had closed was pure show. Harry Reid had pronounced it “dead on arrival” for several days. The rest of the Senate leadership joined the chorus. Mitch put a good face on it, but his cheerleading was unconvincing. And the President said he would veto it even if, by some miracle, it passed the Senate.

Of course it didn’t. Harry Reid may have negative charisma, but he knows his Senate and its rules and can count votes. The much-vaunted Boehner bill is history.

So why did Boehner introduce it in the first place and work so hard at getting the House to pass it, failing once and then berating his own Tea Party in what may be the only outburst of genuine anger on his record?

There are three reasons. First, Boehner wanted to give his Tea-Party crazies something to take home to their constituents after they (or at least some of them) knuckle under and do what’s needed to avoid a catastrophic US default. Their ridiculous balanced-budget amendment, for which there is no support outside of the extreme right wing, at least gives them talking points. Second, Boehner wanted to show his own party who’s boss in the House, despite his first failure and Eric Cantor’s early back-stabbing. Third, Boehner wanted to try reassure the few sane Republicans still out there that the party hadn’t completely lost its mind. Good luck with that last one!

So we wasted almost an entire week while Democrats—who always had the whip hand in their Senate majority and the presidential veto—let the GOP’s little drama play out. (Procedurally, spending bills must originate in the House.)

But the larger drama still hasn’t finished. Now, it’s the Democrats’ turn. Senate Democrats will now try to get the remaining adults in the Senate to cobble together a bill that can lure at least seven Republican votes, enough to stop a filibuster (along with the Democrats’ 53). Once they do, they will kick the bill over to the House, where Boehner will have to rely on both Democratic and Republican votes to pass it before the clock runs out.

If Boehner fails to get it passed, his will be the last hand holding the hot potato. He and his party will bear the blame, along with his unruly Tea Mob, for the first national default in modern history, and perhaps for the double-dip or depression that will follow. Checkmate Democrats!

Is this outcome certain? No. Nothing in life is but death and taxes. Yet it’s probable, the more so because no pol wants his or her fingerprints on a default.

What makes it probable is that any “compromise” bill will do little more than a clean bill could have done at the outset. Each side has already “won” its most precious point. There won’t be any increase in taxes or revenues, and there won’t be any raiding of Social Security or Medicare.

The Senate bargainers will pick the low-hanging fruit. They will put together a basket of easy cuts, perhaps including some self-evidently outrageous military spending (since the “foot soldiers” of both parties want to see military spending reduced). The Republicans will decline to demagogue the “savings” from exiting our two wars as “gimmicks” because they, too, want the package to look bigger. And Boehner’s House, including its Tea Crazies, will have to laud Congress’ “great work” and declare victory, or have their prints all over a default.

Could it all fall apart at the last minute? Sure. There are enough stubborn ideologues among the GOP, and there are enough Democrats outraged by the GOP’s scorched-earth extortion, to bring a compromise down. But congressional leaders of both parties will have a potent weapon to bring their “troops” to heel. They can threaten, if a default occurs, to leak the names of the folks who caused it, if their names are not already obvious from official voting tallies. No member of Congress wants to be caught in public with bloody hands.

So chances are good that we will avert a default at the last minute. But what does that mean outside the congressional theater, in real life?

There will be several consequences, all but two of them bad. First, the debt reduction will be minimal, and Congress will have kicked the can down the road yet again (albeit until after next year’s elections). Second, this prolonged charade will not fool our trading partners, global bond markets or rising economic powers, including China. It will accelerate pressure to drop the dollar as an international medium of exchange and the basis of oil prices. Third, our borrowing costs will rise as international markets write down our credit rating, whether or not the rating agencies also do so. Finally, and as a result, we will see higher interest rates and greater inflation, which will slow our even-now-ailing economy, perhaps throwing us into a double-dip.

The good consequences are only two. First, voters able to reason will blame the GOP for starting the whole charade off with their extortion attempt. Second, John Boehner will be tarnished for having made the debacle by: (1) thrice walking out of talks with Democrats (including the President), (2) offering a bill for show only, while the clock was nearly running out, and (3), in the end, barely being able to control the loonies in his caucus.

No one in Congress will come out smelling sweet, but Boehner, justifiably, will stink the worst. And if we are lucky, that stench will persist until November 2012 and put him in the minority again, where he belongs.

Yet the good consequences are all political. The bad ones are all real. That’s what you get under government by extortion. The extortion is not over yet: the FAA is still crippled, and Senator Shelby (R., natch!) of Alabama still has over 70 holds on presidential appointments. We still have a President suffering the most outrageous and treasonous hazing since the Confederacy seceded after Lincoln’s first election.

And we still have all the real consequences of that: no forward progress on any issue that matters. In rough order of importance, we still have to address our growing energy insecurity, our crumbling infrastructure, our lagging education, our useless and endless wars, our bloated and wasteful military-industrial-espionage complex, our exploding health-care costs, our bipartisan assault on human rights and civil liberties, and (last but not least) our debt. Oh, and did I mention jobs and our economy, from which this month-long episode of political theater seems to have distracted us?

We are still a completely dysfunctional society, with a strong minority of true believers determined to have their way or bring us down. What they don’t realize is that having their way will also bring us down, perhaps even more rapidly. These folks are great at following Grover Norquist’s little red book with zeal and discipline, but not so great at predicting and avoiding consequences in the real world.

If all goes well as outlined above, we will have spent yet another month on gripping but distracting political theater. The President and the Democrats will have come out the “heroes” of the little drama. But another month will have crept by without any progress whatsoever on anything that really matters. And the 2012 campaign is about to begin in earnest.

Will the rest of the world wait for November 2012? I don’t think so. It will continue to pass us by and make us irrelevant as we slowly and painfully make up our minds to get real.

Footnote: For a brief exchange between left- and right-leaning pundits that explains these prospects for a solution, click here and set the video timer to roughly 5:10. This clip (including the prelude to it) is the best and most succinct explanation of what is going on that I have yet seen or read. And it will increase your respect for Harry Reid.

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  • At Monday, August 1, 2011 at 1:54:00 AM EDT, Blogger seanseamour said…

    The Republicans have won, again, they don't mind the public scorn, the article by Stanley Greenberg http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/opinion/sunday/tuning-out-the-democrats.html?src=recg&pagewanted=all
    is eloquent and revealing in its simplicity - the progressives have no one of the caliber of Karl Rove but they elect many of the same greedy careerist politicians so prevalent on the other side of the aisle.
    The blame resident Obama syndrome is the easy way to face the predicament, I fear a right wing landslide in our next election round.

  • At Monday, August 1, 2011 at 10:53:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Sean,

    Please don’t lose faith. I think the President and the Dems won this one by a large margin. But the win may not be apparent for a while, maybe not until the 2012 elections.

    Dispelling the corrupt, rotten and anti-intellectual culture that started with Reagan is going to take time. But the President is a patient and clever man, and this episode is an important but (for now) maybe hidden victory.

    Keep the faith!



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