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“Governing-By-Crisis Has Gotten Even Worse”: The Risk That America Will Default On Its Debts Is Now Higher Than Ever

It’s tempting to say that the upcoming need to increase the debt ceiling is another depressing iteration of the governing-by-crisis that we’ve gotten used to over the last five years since Republicans took control of the House. But it isn’t. It’s worse. The chaos that is the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives is about to have some very serious effects on the entire country.

Why is this crisis different from those that came before it? In all of the government shutdown/debt ceiling crises of the last five years, we knew how they would end: eventually, after putting up a show of fighting against that dastardly Obama administration, John Boehner would allow a vote on a bill to either fund the government or raise the debt ceiling, knowing that it would pass only with the votes of Democrats plus a few dozen Republicans sane enough to want to avoid catastrophe. The conservatives would cry “Betrayal!” but the crisis would be over.

But now even that may not be possible. Here’s the latest news from Politico this morning:

House GOP leaders initially planned to vote on a red-meat proposal Friday pitched by the Republican Study Committee to increase the debt ceiling while imposing new limits on executive-branch power. That measure stood no chance of passing the Senate, but would at least show effort.

Yet when House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s (R-La.) team tested Republican support for the legislation, it fell far short of the needed 218 votes, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) postponed any floor action.

Now, the U.S. government is 12 days from reaching the debt limit without a clear plan of what to do.

Boehner, McCarthy and other GOP leaders are refusing at this point to move ahead with a “clean” debt ceiling bill insisted on by President Barack Obama. Senior leadership aides said they couldn’t find the 30 Republican votes needed to join with all 188 Democrats to pass that proposal — a bleak indication of the current state of play.

So there aren’t even 30 Republicans in the House willing to keep the United States government from defaulting on its debts. How did we get here?

First, let’s establish some context, since it’s been a while since we had a debt ceiling crisis. For some idiosyncratic historical reasons, the United States has a statutory limit on how many bonds it can issue to pay for what Congress buys, meaning that after it passes a budget, Congress has to pass an extra bill allowing the government to pay for that budget (the only other industrialized country that has a debt ceiling is Denmark, which might dim Bernie Sanders’ affection for the place, though theirs is set so high it doesn’t become a political football). For almost a century, debt ceiling increases were an occasion for brief political theater, as members of the party out of power would make some floor speeches about the administration’s outrageous spending, and then the bill would pass extending the ceiling for a year or two, because even the most committed opponents of the administration weren’t so deranged as to actually want to risk the United States government defaulting on its debts. But that was before the Tea Party came to town.

If a new bill raising the ceiling doesn’t pass by November 3rd, we will default. The Obama administration, as it always has, insists upon a “clean” debt ceiling increase — just increase it, and then we can argue about our other policy disagreements without threatening the full faith and credit of the United States. Republicans, however, see this as a great opportunity for blackmail.

So why are we even more likely now to fail to pass an increase than we were when we had this same crisis in 2011, then again in 2013, then again in 2014? Look at what’s going on in the House. Conservatives there are feeling emboldened because they just got rid of John Boehner, as they had wanted to do for so long. They feel strong and empowered, so naturally they believe that this is a battle they can win, even if they’ve lost before. And they’ve upped their demands.

Now they want not just general budget cuts in exchange for raising the ceiling, but cuts specifically to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. That demand was contained in a document the House Freedom Caucus put out recently, and the conservative Republican Study Committee’s proposal would raise the ceiling in exchange for $3.8 billion in cuts to those programs over the next decade, along with a freeze on all regulations until Barack Obama leaves office. If they think Democrats would ever accept those terms, they’ve lost their minds. But they seem serious.

But it isn’t just this recent revolt. As Jackie Calmes and David Herszenhorn of the New York Times recently pointed out, today’s House is even more conservative than it was when we came so close to defaulting before:

The legislative math has only grown more difficult. When Congress last voted in February 2014 to suspend the debt limit, 28 House Republicans joined nearly all Democrats in support; 199 Republicans were opposed. Now there are fewer Democrats in the House and if all 188 of them voted for an increase, Republican leaders would need 30 votes from their side for a 218-vote majority — two more than last year.

Yet nine of last year’s 28 Republican supporters have left Congress and at least three of their Republican successors — Representatives Dave Brat of Virginia, Steve Knight of California and Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina — are almost certain to be opposed.

Also, 14 Democrats who voted to increase the debt limit are gone, replaced by Republicans, some of whom are likely to vote no.

That’s why they can’t even find 30 Republicans to vote for a clean increase. Then there’s the question of the next Speaker, who will be the one actually shepherding this crisis if Republicans stick to their schedule of electing the new Speaker next week.  While Paul Ryan hasn’t said publicly what he thinks ought to be done, he voted against the increase last year. This topic surely came up when he went to the Freedom Caucus to win their support. What did he tell them? They fervently want to use the threat of default to extort the administration into satisfying some of their policy goals. Is one of Ryan’s first acts a Speaker going to be turning his back on them? Don’t bet on it.

All this suggests that every force involved is propelling Republicans not just toward forcing a crisis, but forcing an actual default. At some point, they might realize that “Republicans are holding a gun to the head of the American economy and they’ll fire unless we let them slash Social Security and Medicare” isn’t exactly a winning political message to send. But who knows how much damage will be done before they realize that?


By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, October 23, 2015

October 25, 2015 Posted by | Debt Ceiling, House Freedom Caucus, House Republican Caucus, Paul Ryan | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Taking Stock Of The Global Dysfunction On The Right”: Raising The Debt Ceiling Won’t Prove House Republicans Are Sane

After House Speaker John Boehner announced his decision to resign at the end of October, and then more urgently when the Treasury Department alerted Congress that the deadline to increase the statutory debt limit had advanced to the beginning of November, a sense of dread momentarily overwhelmed official Washington.

Budget experts, economists, and anyone with a political memory going back at least four years were abruptly consumed with the likelihood that the responsibility for increasing the debt limit would fall to an untested new speaker—and, more troublingly, a speaker whose election would require him to placate House hardliners with dangerous promises.

The solution to the dilemma was obvious at the time, and remains so: An unencumbered Boehner could place legislation to increase the debt limit on the House floor, and it would pass. But until this week it was unclear how aggressively he intended to clean house before his departure, or whether he’d leave multiple obligations to his successor.

Though the speakership crisis and the debt-limit crisis remain unresolved, the sense of alarm has drained out of the story almost as rapidly as it emerged. Cooler heads have seemingly rescued the debt limit from conservative hostage-takers. And that has created a temptation to celebrate averted catastrophe as a triumph of political reality over right-wing fanaticism.

Succumbing to that temptation would be a huge mistake. It is crucial at this point to take stock of the global dysfunction on the right, and appreciate just how badly it has imperiled our system of government.

We owe the prospect of an uneventful debt limit resolution to a deus ex machina. Boehner’s heir presumptive, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, abandoned the race for speaker to the tune of Yakety Sax, denuding the House Benghazi Committee along the way and compelling Boehner to consider increasing the debt limit—either without precondition, or as part of a genuinely bipartisan agreement—before he leaves Congress.

Despite rumblings from the other chamber, this should go down fairly smoothly in the Senate. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chief deputy, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said in a recent CNN interview that he’s “ready to raise the debt limit ‘until 2017’ in order to get the matter off the table during an election year. McConnell, sources say, feels the same way, and the two sides are discussing the possibility of raising the debt limit until March 2017, just two months after a new president and Congress are sworn in.” Crisis deferred.

Debt-ceiling dramas like this aren’t borne of necessity. They’re concocted to appease reactionaries in the House. In this way, they’re an artifact of the Tea Party insurgency five years ago, and the untenable promises GOP leaders made to conservatives after President Obama was first elected. The legislative landscape is littered with such artifacts—past hostage crises, consensus immigration legislation, even the Benghazi committee itself—and it’s our good fortune that several of them are now at the forefront of U.S. politics simultaneously.

The fact that Republicans revealed the Benghazi Committee to be an elaborate farce, just in time for Hillary Clinton to testify before it, and that the’re likely to extend the Treasury Department’s borrowing authority without incident, can both be construed as side-effects of overreach—a natural political check on extremism that prevents the legislature from becoming completely weaponized. “Whether or not Boehner actually ends up sparing us the needless drama of a protracted confrontation,” writes Greg Sargent at The Washington Post, “the fact that he’s looking to resolve this without one itself confirms how this will ultimately end, no matter what has to happen along the way. And there’s no need for anyone to pretend otherwise.” 

There’s something comforting about that interpretation, and at a general level, it’s basically correct. But it doesn’t account for the enormous role coincidence played in saving the country from another near-catastrophe, or outright default, in this particular instance.

It would thus behoove us to be mindful of how badly things could have gone if events had transpired slightly differently—if the debt limit deadline hadn’t budged, if McCarthy had succeeded Boehner, by promising confrontation with the White House—before moving on to the next big story. Republican dysfunction has never caused the U.S. to default, but it does create a much higher-risk environment. One plausible remedy lies in the hope that the confluence of events—the speakership crisis, the debt-limit drama, the Benghazi admissions, the Republican primary meltdown—will, in James Fallows’ words, eliminate “the discomfort of reporters, old and young alike, with recognizing that the United States doesn’t currently have two structurally similar political parties approaching issues on roughly comparable terms [but] one historically familiar-looking party, and another converting itself into something else.”

In an interview with Bloomberg View, the political scientist Thomas Mann—who, along with his coauthor Norm Ornstein, has been at pains for years to awaken the press to the reality of modern American politics—explained that “the solution … must focus on the obvious but seldom acknowledged asymmetry between the parties.”

Under quieter circumstances, that would be a pipe dream. Under the extreme circumstances of the moment, it’s a little more plausible. First, though, everyone must resist the temptation to disaggregate these stories and chalk them up individually to dramatic, but ultimately normal, politics.


By: Brian Beutler, Senior Editor at The New Republic, October 16, 2015

October 18, 2015 Posted by | Debt Ceiling, House Freedom Caucus, House Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Political War All The Time”: Republicans Turning The American People Into Collateral Damage

There is a time for war and a time for peace, according to the book of Ecclesiastes and The Byrds. In the contest to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House, the Republican candidates chose to sell themselves as full-time political warriors. Forget about the national interest. Their job, as they have framed it, is to smite Democrats.

The security of American diplomats in dangerous places and maintaining America’s promise to pay its debts are a concern to everyone. Sadly, many ambitious Republicans distort the facts surrounding these important matters to fuel their political advancement. In their terms, that means entertaining hard-right voters not tuned in to the big picture. When that happens, governing stops.

Now we are not so naive as to think that a high wall separates governing and politics. But the House speaker needs to know how to avoid political warfare that turns the American people into collateral damage. Boehner understood that much of the time.

One of the aspirants, Jason Chaffetz, vowed to threaten default on the U.S. debt and a government shutdown as a means to yank concessions from Democrats. The Utah Republican’s martial words: “We’re just not going to unilaterally raise the debt limit.”

Huh? Fight over taxes and spending, sure, but compromise America’s reputation for honoring its debts as a negotiating tool? That treats the entire country as a hostage.

After the Republicans’ 2011 debt ceiling outrage, stock prices plunged, and consumer confidence fell through the floor. Standard & Poor’s lowered America’s previously magnificent credit rating. Even though a last-minute fix stopped the horrible from happening, the stunt cost all of us.

Just handing the powerful speaker of the House job to a man suggesting he’d do just that all over again weakens the American economy. If that weren’t sport enough, Chaffetz also backs shutting down the government rather than funding Planned Parenthood.

In promoting his political war skills, the leading contender, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, foolishly blew the cover off Republican motives for their endless investigation into the Benghazi tragedy. You see, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state when a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed at the besieged U.S. Consulate in Libya. Now she’s a strong Democratic candidate for president.

McCarthy said this: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today?”

What clever fellows they are. So dragging America through the details again and again had little to do with reaching a truth on Benghazi — one of a multitude of calamities tied to the violent chaos in that part of the world. It was all about pushing down Clinton’s poll numbers.

Republicans are understandably sore at McCarthy for making that revealing statement. What’s interesting is why a practiced politician such as McCarthy would say such an impolitic thing.

Perhaps when everything that happens is seen as politics, nothing seems impolitic. McCarthy was on Fox News Channel, where accusations concerning Benghazi (and Clinton’s use of private email while secretary of state) go round and round in a mind-numbing loop.

McCarthy may have simply lost track of the fact that there’s a voting public outside of the angry Republican base. He forgot that our officials in Washington have duties beyond obsessing about the next election.

As a final thought, let’s note that other democracies have rules in place to temper political warfare.

In Britain, for example, the speaker of the House of Commons must be nonpartisan. According to Wikipedia, “the Speaker, by convention, severs all ties with his or her political party, as it is considered essential that the Speaker be seen as an impartial presiding officer.”

In America, that’ll be the day.


By: Froma Harrop, The National Memo, October 8, 2015

October 10, 2015 Posted by | Governing, House Freedom Caucus, Speaker of The House | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Cleaning Up The Last Bush/Cheney Mess”: There Is Almost Never A Way To Do So That Pleases Everyone

One of the sad realities of the Obama presidency is that he and his administration have had to spend so much of their time cleaning up messes that were left by Bush and Cheney. I won’t try to capture all of them, but two wars in the Middle East, an economy careening towards a second Great Depression and exploding federal deficits are the three big ones. When President Obama titled his 2015 State of the Union Address “Turning the Page,” a lot of what he was saying is that his administration was finally ready to move on from most of that.

But one intransigent mess lingers on…the prison Bush/Cheney built in Guantanamo, Cuba. President Obama is determined to close Gitmo before his term ends and the White House has been clear that they are drafting a plan to do so.

This week right wing media sites have gone a bit berserk over the fact that two more detainees have been released. The first was the man who was reported to be Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard.

The former detainee, Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 39, is from Saudi Arabia, and he was one of 32 Middle Eastern men who were captured by the Pakistani military along the Afghanistan border in December 2001 and turned over to the United States. He was among the first batch of detainees taken to the prison when it opened at the American naval station in Cuba on Jan. 11, 2002.

Second was the last of several British residents and citizens who have been held at Gitmo.

The Obama administration has notified Congress of its intent to send Shaker Aamer, a suspected al-Qaeda plotter held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than 13 years, back to Britain, yielding to a lengthy campaign to secure the British resident’s release, officials said Friday.

For a status update on where things stand with closing Gitmo, the New York Times has some helpful graphs. Of the 771 detainees who have been held there, 657 have been released and 114 remain. Of the 53 who have been cleared for release but are still there, 43 are from Yemen. The Obama administration has been reluctant to repatriate detainees to Yemen due to the chaos that currently exists in that country. Ten detainees have either been convicted or await trial. Finally, as a testament to how badly the Bush/Cheney administration handled all this, the remaining 51 have been recommended for indefinite detention without a trail – mostly due to the fact that evidence has been tainted by their treatment (read: torture).

In December of last year, Pope Francis offered to help the Obama administration in their efforts to close Gitmo. This is very likely one of the topics he and the President discussed in their one-on-one meeting this week. I would assume that the Vatican might be most helpful in working with countries to provide alternatives for the 53 who have been cleared for release. No matter how controversial plans for that might be, you can be sure that whatever President Obama proposes to do with the remaining detainees (10 convicted/awaiting trail and 51 to be indefinitely detained), there will be howls from both sides of the political spectrum. The left will suggest that they shouldn’t be held at all and the right will complain because President Obama’s likely solution will be to move them to a maximum security prison(s) in the United States.

I will simply say that one of the problems that is endemic to cleaning up your predecessors messes is that there is almost never a way to do so that pleases everyone. Nothing more ably demonstrates that than Gitmo. Perhaps the one thing that everyone can agree with is that President Obama deserves some credit for his determination to not leave this one to the next president.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, September 27, 2015

September 30, 2015 Posted by | Bush-Cheney Administration, Congress, GITMO | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Francis Prods Congress’ Conscience”: We Can Find No Social Or Moral Justification, No Justification Whatsoever, For Lack Of Housing

Wouldn’t it be grand if Pope Francis could be a recurring visitor to the U.S. Congress, a sort of spiritual superintendent who occasionally drops in to chide, cajole, and mostly just remind our legislators when their actions don’t promote the common good? What kind of country would we become?

Watching as the pontiff stepped away from the podium after his electrifying speech to Congress, I wanted the effect to stick. I wanted to see Democrats and Republicans get off their high horses and cooperate on restoring the health and prosperity of the nation. I wanted our elected officials to stop acting merely as the “political class” and instead legislate as men and women of conscience.

I know I’m not alone. A lot of reasonable people in this country wish the pope’s short visit would usher in such an era.

But with his visit to Capitol Hill complete, the pope drove off in his little Fiat, en route to greet the people nearest his heart: the poor and homeless. At St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, he spoke to and looked in the faces of the least among us at a Catholic Charities free lunch for more than 200. It was a sharp contrast to his prior errand. And yet there is a role for government at this table, too.

“Why are we homeless?” Francis asked. “Why don’t we have housing? These are questions which many of you may ask daily.”

Then, he added, “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”

Is that clear enough for you? There is no justification whatsoever, and yet homelessness persists — thrives, actually — in this rich and powerful nation. Why?

Unwind the life of virtually any homeless man, woman or child and you may see personal failure or family failure. More likely you will see challenges that people can’t handle by themselves: mental illness, domestic violence, catastrophic job loss, poverty. No one sets out in life wanting to be homeless. No one should be trapped in homelessness, even as a consequence of poor choices.

That they continue to be is an indictment of a society that sanctions discarding — a word Francis often uses — those it finds inconvenient.

It’s also a failure of government. Just as you can track the problems along a person’s road to homelessness, you can track policy maker’s failure — or is it refusal? — to respond. The story of homelessness is a story of policy failure: shortfalls in vision and funding of public education, investment in neighborhoods, job training, access to healthcare (especially mental), affordable treatment for addictions of alcohol and drugs, and treatment for PTSD-afflicted veterans after they fight our wars.

Those are all issues that Congress has an impact on, for better or worse.

The pope’s arrival in the U.S. overshadowed a national headline on homelessness out of Los Angeles. City leaders declared a “state of emergency” because the number of homeless people setting up encampments has grown to an estimated 26,000.

In other words, the homeless have become too numerous to ignore.

So an announcement was made that $100 million would be shoveled at programs, which not surprisingly have yet to be FULLY outlined. That’s because there are no easy answers.

The skyrocketing costs of housing, and the lack of affordable options, are significant factors in why homelessness has grown by 12 percent in Los Angeles in the past two years. But affordable housing is an issue in virtually every American city.

The uneven way the economy is recovering from the recession is another complicating factor. Congress and the president approved bailouts and other deals for some, but that didn’t benefit everyone in the long run. How the U.S. rebuilds its economy will determine who and how many land on our streets in the future.

A central moral teaching of virtually every faith is the responsibility to feed the poor. Yet charity alone is not a solution. We have an obligation as a society, through the policies of our governments, to create the conditions and opportunities for all to house, feed and clothe themselves and their families.

Any honest assessment of homelessness apportions blame and responsibility in many directions. Like the stalemates of Congress, homelessness didn’t begin recently, and it continues through inaction or misdirected action from many, many quarters.

Day by day, struggle by struggle, people fall into being homeless through their own faults and from circumstances they did not create.

There but for the grace of God goes each of us.


By: Mary Sanchez, Opinion-Page Columnist for The Kansas City Star; The National Memo, September 26, 2015

September 28, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Government, Homeless, Pope Francis | , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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