There’s long been an expression that’s common in theater: if there’s a gun on the stage, it has to go off. It’s a loose translation of something called “Chekov’s Gun,” and I’ve long believed it’s a helpful metaphor for the debt-ceiling law.
The debt ceiling is a gun that’s been on the stage for nearly a century, and from time to time, we’ve seen lawmakers pick it up, play with it, wave it around, and even make threats with it, though thankfully it’s never gone off. But if we want to make sure no one ever pulls the trigger, there’s really only one logical course: it’s time this gun leaves the stage once and for all.
Now that Congress has approved a “clean” debt-ceiling extension, Democrats hope they’ve re-established a governing norm: extortion schemes using the full faith and credit of the United States will no longer be tolerated. When President Obama said last night, “One of the things that I said throughout this process is we’ve got to get out of the habit of governing by crisis,” I took this as a subtle reminder to GOP lawmakers: this particular gambit is over.
Whether Republicans intend to hold the debt ceiling hostage again remains an open question. Last night, Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.) conceded, “I’m going to commit candor here: I think we’ll have less leverage on the next CR & the next debt limit.” Around the same time, however, a Senate Republican leadership aide told a Washington Examiner reporter that the party has “no intention of allowing the next debt limit hike to be ‘clean.’”
Let’s consider that sentence, pause for a moment, and collectively bang our heads against our desks.
Policymakers can end the extortion, the economic uncertainty, and the threat of economic calamity by taking this gun off the stage – or at least unloading it. Josh Green recently talked up one of the more sensible solutions.
Back in 1979, the Democratic House Speaker, Tip O’Neill, handed the unhappy job of lining up votes for a debt-ceiling raise to Representative Richard Gephardt, then a young Democratic congressman from Missouri. Gephardt hated this, and, realizing he’d probably get stuck with it again, consulted the parliamentarian about whether the two votes could be combined. The parliamentarian said they could. Thereafter, whenever the House passed a budget resolution, the debt ceiling was “deemed” raised.
The “Gephardt Rule,” as it became known, lasted until 1995, when the new House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, fresh from the Republican triumph of the 1994 midterms, recognized the same thing that Tea Party Republicans recognize today: The threat of default could be used to extort Democratic concessions. Gingrich abolished the Gephardt Rule, and within the year the government had shut down.
Long story short, under the Gephardt Rule, Congress maintains its power of the purse and approves federal spending. If expenditures are greater than receipts, as they nearly always are, it’s simply automatic that the Treasury will have the borrowing authority to pay the nation’s bills. Gingrich ended the practice, but there’s no reason contemporary policymakers can’t bring it back.
If Congress doesn’t like the Gephardt Rule, there are other alternative solutions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for example, floated a related idea in 2011 in which the debt ceiling would remain in place, but the legislative burden would shift – the White House would have the authority to extend Treasury’s borrowing, and instead of going to Congress for permission, Congress would only have the power to proactively block Treasury. In other words, instead of needing a “yes” from Congress, lawmakers would only have the ability to say “no.”
There’s also the possibility of a constitutional challenge – there’s a credible argument to be made that the debt-ceiling statute itself violates several provisions of the Constitution, including the 14th Amendment, so it should be struck down in the courts. If not, University of Chicago Law School professor Eric Posner recommends a constitutional amendment to prevent disaster in the future.
There are options. The point, though, is simple: the status quo shouldn’t be left in place.
It doesn’t even have to be seen as a partisan issue – Dean Clancy, who works on policy for the far-right FreedomWorks group, recently endorsed scrapping the debt ceiling, too. Everyone from Tim Geithner to Warren Buffett to Alan Greenspan has reached the same conclusion.
Most modern, industrialized countries don’t have a statutory debt limit for exactly this reason – it’s simply too dangerous. It’s time for the United States to catch up and eliminate this weapon before someone – which is to say, us – gets hurt.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 17, 2013
So we probably now have a short-term continuing resolution set to expire in January. Does that mean another shutdown in January, after the two sides can’t reach an agreement? After all, that’s what happened in 1995 and 1996: a relatively brief shutdown in the fall was followed by a five-week deadlock in the winter. Is that what we’re going to get?
What the shutdown that appears to be ending today and the 1995-1996 episodes had in common was important: in both cases, one side really wanted the shutdown. In 1995, Newt Gingrich and many Republicans sincerely believed that Bill Clinton was personally weak and would fold if pressed hard enough. That turned out to be wrong; whether it was a foolish idea to test it in the way Gingrich did remains, I suppose, an open question.
This time around, the logic of the showdown gang was clearly foolish; no objective observers believed their stated plan would work; it would have required a massive surge of anger at the Democrats for allowing the government to be shut down over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but most Democrats like the ACA, and polling indicated that practically no one outside of tea party circles favored a shutdown over it.
There have been a lot of very contentious budget arguments over the last few decades, but none of the others ended with a prolonged shutdown; the next-longest one after those was only three days.
What causes an extended shutdown, then, isn’t missing a deadline. In fact, deadlines are probably needed to get deals done. As long as neither side actively seeks a shutdown, one of three things will happen: they’ll make a deal by the deadline; they’ll miss the deadline but going over the deadline will be enough to get it done; or, they’ll agree to move the deadline.
The question as we approach the next finish line, then, isn’t whether we’ll go close to the edge. Of course we will, but that’s a feature, not a bug (on a shutdown; flirting with the brink on debt limit is a far riskier thing to do). Real negotiations are hard; it takes time to sort out what the real asks are and what’s just bluff. The question is whether a significant faction of the Republican Party wants to do this again, and, if so, whether the rest of the party will accommodate them again.
My guess, as of now, is that this one was devastating enough that we won’t see a repeat. That doesn’t mean that Republicans will back off their demands; it just means that they won’t see any additional utility in fighting through a shutdown.
My biggest worry? This wasn’t 1995-1996, when the GOP was generally united behind the belief that a shutdown would work for them. Instead, the dynamic this time was that a relatively small group wanted it, and a much larger ‘fraidy cat group was terrified of allowing any visible difference between themselves and the radicals. That could repeat itself next time — and the radicals, especially those in outside groups, may actually be pleased with the fundraising results of this fight, even if it hurt the party overall.
However, it’s reasonable to hope that mainstream conservatives learned their lesson from this one and won’t do it again; there’s also the hope that those radicals who are actually driven by policy goals may also have learned something.
Overall? One way or another, budget deadlines are absolutely necessary. And we won’t get a shutdown unless one side wants it.
By: Jonathan Bernstein, The Washington Post, October 16, 2013
“Our Democracy Is At Stake”: It’s Not Just Obamacare, President Obama Is Defending The Health Of Our Democracy
This time is different. What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule. President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking — not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.
What we’re seeing here is how three structural changes that have been building in American politics have now, together, reached a tipping point — creating a world in which a small minority in Congress can not only hold up their own party but the whole government. And this is the really scary part: The lawmakers doing this can do so with high confidence that they personally will not be politically punished, and may, in fact, be rewarded. When extremists feel that insulated from playing by the traditional rules of our system, if we do not defend those rules — namely majority rule and the fact that if you don’t like a policy passed by Congress, signed by the president and affirmed by the Supreme Court then you have to go out and win an election to overturn it; you can’t just put a fiscal gun to the country’s head — then our democracy is imperiled.
This danger was neatly captured by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, when he wrote on Tuesday about the 11th-hour debate in Congress to avert the shutdown. Noting a shameful statement by Speaker John Boehner, Milbank wrote: “Democrats howled about ‘extortion’ and ‘hostage taking,’ which Boehner seemed to confirm when he came to the floor and offered: ‘All the Senate has to do is say ‘yes,’ and the government is funded tomorrow.’ It was the legislative equivalent of saying, ‘Give me the money and nobody gets hurt.’ ”
“Give me the money and nobody gets hurt.” How did we get here? First, by taking gerrymandering to a new level. The political analyst Charlie Cook, writing in The National Journal on March 16, noted that the 2010 election gave Republican state legislatures around the country unprecedented power to redraw political boundaries, which they used to create even more “safe, lily-white” Republican strongholds that are, in effect, an “alternative universe” to the country’s diverse reality.
“Between 2000 and 2010, the non-Hispanic white share of the population fell from 69 percent to 64 percent,” wrote Cook. “But after the post-census redistricting and the 2012 elections, the non-Hispanic white share of the average Republican House district jumped from 73 percent to 75 percent, and the average Democratic House district declined from 52 percent white to 51 percent white. In other words, while the country continues to grow more racially diverse, the average Republican district continues to get even whiter.”
According to Cook, the number of strongly Democratic districts decreased from 144 before redistricting to 136 afterward. The number of strongly Republican districts increased from 175 to 183. “When one party starts out with 47 more very strong districts than the other,” said Cook, “the numbers suggest that the fix is in for any election featuring a fairly neutral environment. Republicans would need to mess up pretty badly to lose their House majority in the near future.” In other words, there is little risk of political punishment for the Tea Party members now holding the country hostage.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s inane Citizens United decision allowed a single donor, Sheldon Adelson, to create his own alternative universe. He was able to contribute so much money to support Newt Gingrich’s candidacy that Gingrich was able to stay in the Republican presidential primary race longer than he would have under sane campaign finance rules. As a result, Gingrich was able to pull the G.O.P.’s leading candidate, Mitt Romney, farther to the right longer, making it harder for him to garner centrist votes. Last month, for the first time ever in Colorado, two state senators who voted for universal background checks on gun purchases lost their seats in a recall election engineered by gun extremists and reportedly financed with some $400,000 from the National Rifle Association. You’re elected, you vote your conscience on a narrow issue, but now determined opponents don’t have to wait for the next election. With enough money, they can get rid of you in weeks.
Finally, the rise of a separate G.O.P. (and a liberal) media universe — from talk-radio hosts, to Web sites to Fox News — has created another gravity-free zone, where there is no punishment for extreme behavior, but there’s 1,000 lashes on Twitter if you deviate from the hard-line and great coverage to those who are most extreme. When politicians only operate inside these bubbles, they lose the habit of persuasion and opt only for coercion. After all, they must be right. Rush Limbaugh told them so.
These “legal” structural changes in money, media and redistricting are not going away. They are superempowering small political movements to act in extreme ways without consequences and thereby stymie majority rule. If democracy means anything, it means that, if you are outvoted, you accept the results and prepare for the next election. Republicans are refusing to do that. It shows contempt for the democratic process.
President Obama is not defending health care. He’s defending the health of our democracy. Every American who cherishes that should stand with him.
By: Thomas L. Friedman, Op-Ed Columnist, the New York Times, October 2, 2013
Regardless of what you think of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the Republican effort to derail it through the government shutdown currently underway is miserably poor politics and even worse public relations.
I tried to resist writing about this topic because the partisans are hopelessly locked into their positions and my opinion on the law isn’t of any value to anyone other than my dog, who hangs on my every word. But communications is my business, and I happen to have been a young, Republican congressional chief of staff during the two shutdowns of 1995, and what I see today is worse than what happened then.
The shutdowns of ’95 were part of a budget fight between cocky new Republican majorities in both the House and Senate and a stumbling Democratic president who was about to begin his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. Hardly anyone today remembers that the issue then was about getting the president to agree to a plan to balance the budget over the next seven years. In ’95, Newt Gingrich was the first Republican Speaker of the House in half a century, and he had just led a 100-day legislative assault on business as usual that resulted in a series of popular reforms to make government smaller, more responsive and transparent known as the “Contract with America.”
That summer, Republicans were looking for ways to keep the ball rolling and the prospect of using a government shutdown as a cudgel in this struggle between the legislative and executive branches was already on the table. If the government shuts down, Gingrich told Time magazine, President Clinton “can run the parts of the government that are left, or he can run no government. Which of the two of us do you think worries more about the government not showing up?”
By November, the freshmen Republicans in the House were practically chanting “shut it down” in the hallways. Many of them thought this would be popular back home, almost to the degree that the Contract had been.
First came a brief shutdown for a few days in November. And then, when negotiations with the White House broke down, came a shutdown that began on December 15 and which lasted for 21 days.
Guess what happened? People stopped talking about the need for a plan to balance the budget and began talking about all the government services they couldn’t get. Basic services halted. Fears arose about Social Security checks not going out and missing paychecks to members of the military. Thousands of federal workers were forced on furlough days before Christmas.
Republicans had made a fundamental political error – we shifted the debate from the topic on which we really wanted victory (balancing the budget) to one that not only was off-topic, but reminded people that there actually is a lot about government that they like, want and need. Oh, and we scared and hurt a lot people whose confidence and support we were trying to win.
Does this sound familiar?
Here in Central Florida, the front page of my local newspaper features the story of a couple who have been planning a wedding at the Jefferson Memorial for months. Now their plans are in jeopardy. That’s not a story about health care; it’s a story about how politicians are screwing up somebody’s nice event.
A few weeks after the shutdown ended in January 1996, President Clinton masterfully exploited the nation’s mood in his State of the Union Address. Near the end of the speech, standing in the well of the House of Representatives, Clinton turned toward the first lady’s balcony in a move that has been used by every president since Ronald Reagan, and introduced a special guest:
I want to say a special word now to those who work for our federal government. Today our federal government is 200,000 employees smaller than it was the day I took office as President. (Applause.) Our federal government today is the smallest it has been in 30 years, and it’s getting smaller every day. Most of our fellow Americans probably don’t know that. And there’s a good reason — a good reason: The remaining federal work force is composed of hard-working Americans who are now working harder and working smarter than ever before to make sure the quality of our services does not decline. (Applause.)
I’d like to give you one example. His name is Richard Dean. He’s a 49 year-old Vietnam veteran who’s worked for the Social Security Administration for 22 years now. Last year he was hard at work in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City when the blast killed 169 people and brought the rubble down all around him. He reentered that building four times. He saved the lives of three women. He’s here with us this evening, and I want to recognize Richard and applaud both his public service and his extraordinary personal heroism. (Applause.)
But Richard Dean’s story doesn’t end there. This last November, he was forced out of his office when the government shut down. And the second time the government shut down he continued helping Social Security recipients, but he was working without pay.
On behalf of Richard Dean and his family, and all the other people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people, I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Never, ever shut the federal government down again. (Applause.)
Clinton’s State of the Union address ended all talk among Republicans that the shutdowns had been successful.
Around this time, Gingrich was fond of calling for dramatic change by citing the saying that one of the definitions of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.
What are we to make of this situation now?
By: Keith Lee Rupp, U. S. News and World Report, October 2, 2013
Way back in the days when bloggers carved their missives out on stone tablets (by which I mean 2005), Digby noted, in response to the nascent trend of conservatives deciding that George W. Bush wasn’t a conservative after all, wrote, “Get used to hearing about how the Republicans failed because they weren’t true conservatives. Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed by weak-minded souls who refuse to properly follow its tenets.” We’ve seen that a lot in the years since—the interpretation of every election Republicans lose is that they weren’t conservative enough, and if they had just nominated a true believer or run farther to right, victory would have been theirs.
There’s already a tactical division within the Republican Party about the wisdom of shutting down the government in an attempt to kill the Affordable Care Act. The members who have been around a while understand that no matter what happens, Barack Obama is not going to bend on this one. He won’t dismantle his greatest domestic policy accomplishment, and he won’t delay it for a year. He just won’t. The members who are newer, particularly Tea Partiers who got elected in 2010 and 2012, think that if they just hold fast, eventually Obama will buckle.
And there’s another difference between the two groups. That first group of older members were around for the shutdowns during the Clinton years, and remember how badly things turned out for them. Here’s an excerpt from an NPR story aired this morning:
“It was a calculated gamble on the part of the speaker, Newt Gingrich,” says Steve Bell, who was a Republican congressional aide. The new Republican majority in Congress decided to push their spending fight with President Clinton to the limit, even if it meant shutting down the government.
“And at first, about half of us thought it was a bad idea and half of us thought it was a good idea,” says Bell. “But in the perfect example of groupthink, we talked ourselves into believing that, oh, the president will get blamed and we will be able to get our way.”
Bell, who’s now with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, says the Gingrich gamble didn’t pay off, except for President Clinton.
“The president wasn’t blamed,” says Bell. And “the amount of money we saved over that government shutdown literally is almost a rounding error. So we went through all of this for almost no savings, net-net, and we successfully re-elected someone that we thought we were supposed to defeat.”
All the reporting I’ve seen says that is the perspective shared by John Boehner and others in the GOP leadership. The problem is that Tea Partiers in the House don’t see it that way. They believe the shutdown will be blamed on President Obama, and the only possible way for Republicans to lose is if they give in too soon.
That’s because the idea that conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed, extends beyond ideology to its tactical extension, eternal and maximal opposition to Barack Obama and everything he wants to do. Fighting Obama is a strategy that can never fail. If failure happens, it can only be because we didn’t fight him hard enough.
Once this is all over, they’ll be telling everyone the same old story. If only the party had been stronger, if only Boehner had stood firm, if only we had kept the government closed for another week or another month, everyone would have seen we were right, Obama would have been crippled for the remainder of his term, we would have won a smashing victory in the 2014 mid-term elections, and the blow that led to Obamacare’s inevitable death would have been struck. But we were betrayed by Boehner and the other cowards and quislings.
I wouldn’t even be surprised if come 2015, where you stood on the shutdown becomes a key litmus test Tea Party activists apply to GOP presidential contenders.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, September 30, 2013