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“Default Prevention Act, Really?”: House GOP Plays With Matches; Will The Economy Burn?

The Republican-led Congress has just 12 days before the nation’s debt ceiling has to be raised. If lawmakers fail to meet their responsibilities, the country won’t be able to pay its bills, we’ll default on our debts, the full faith and credit of the United States will be in jeopardy, and the economic consequences will be severe.

At this point, congressional Republicans appear to be divided into two groups. The first, which includes the GOP leadership, knows it must raise the debt ceiling, but this faction has no idea how to complete the simple task. The second, which includes far-right members in both chambers, wants to hold the debt ceiling hostage, threatening to crash the economy on purpose unless Democrats meets their demands, but this faction hasn’t bothered to fill out the ransom note.

So far, markets aren’t panicking, because everyone is working from the assumption that Republicans won’t deliberately create a recession for no reason – though anything’s possible.

What’s striking, though, is how little work is getting done. We’re 12 days away from a dangerous deadline – Congress is only in session for 7 of those 12 days – and Congress isn’t even trying to move towards a resolution yet. Instead, the GOP-led House spent time yesterday on something called the “Default Prevention Act.”

With the potential for an unprecedented federal default two weeks away, House Republicans on Wednesday plan to pass legislation not to avert disaster, but rather to manage it, channeling daily tax collections to the nation’s creditors and Social Security recipients if the government’s borrowing limit is not lifted.

Let’s put this in everyday terms. Imagine a gang told you they plan to burn down your town unless their demands are met. You’re skeptical and tell the gang to go away. But the gang members stick around and say, “Before we burn down your town, let’s start making plans to prioritize which parts of the town you might want to rescue before we turn violent.”

That, in a nutshell, is what the “Default Prevention Act” is all about – the gang members passed a bill yesterday to prioritize which bills they’ll allow the United States to pay, and which bills will get burned by their fire.

The problem, of course, is that all of this is completely insane.

What we’re talking about is a plan in which Republicans try to manage the fire from their own arson, “channeling daily tax collections to the nation’s creditors and Social Security recipients” after they refuse, on purpose, to raise the debt ceiling.

And why would GOP lawmakers prioritize the nation’s creditors and Social Security recipients? On the former, because so much of the global economy rests on U.S. Treasury bonds, a deliberate default risks crashing financial systems across the planet. That would be … catastrophically bad.

On the latter, congressional Republicans don’t want to be responsible for cutting off Social Security checks for millions of American seniors, right in time for the holidays.

The “Default Prevention Act” is, by this measure, misnamed. It would prevent the nation from defaulting on some debts, while encouraging the nation to default on others.

Making matters just a little worse, Slate’s Jordan Weissmann explained that the GOP plan appears to be illegal and literally impossible to implement.

[E]ven if the government could borrow to pay bondholders and seniors, crossing the debt limit would still be plenty apocalyptic. Treasury’s computers still might not be capable of prioritizing its obligations, in which case we’d still end up failing to pay some bondholders despite Congress’s intentions.

 The mere threat of such an accidental default could cause markets to seize. If the Treasury did successfully keep money flowing to its lenders, meanwhile, the government still wouldn’t be able to cover all of its other costs, and thus would be forced to implement massive, immediate spending cuts to other programs, likely dragging the U.S. and probably the rest of the world into a recession.

He’s referring, of course, to a recession that could easily be avoided by simply raising the debt ceiling – a simple, procedural vote that costs nothing.

Tick, tock.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 22, 2015

October 24, 2015 Posted by | Debt Ceiling, Default Prevention Act, Economy | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Whistling Past The Graveyard”: Why The Raging Dysfunction In Washington Is The New Normal

When Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew from his frontrunning candidacy to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House, it underscored just how dysfunctional the “governing” Republican Party has become. The dispute within the party is not ideological — the degree of policy consensus within the Republican conference is remarkable. Rather, the dispute is tactical. Some party elites, like Boehner, understand that there’s no chance that Republican objectives like repealing the Affordable Care Act and defunding Planned Parenthood can be achieved with Barack Obama in the White House. Members of the Freedom Caucus, conversely, believe (or pretend to believe) that threatening government shutdowns and debt defaults can somehow force Obama to sign bills erasing his primary policy achievements. No wonder nobody wants the job.

It’s tempting to think that this rolling crisis, in which threats to the basic functioning of government become routine, is a temporary phenomenon. But there is a very real and frightening possibility: This is the new normal. The presence of two ideologically coherent parties, combined with the separation of legislative and executive authority, is probably going to produce similar results whenever there’s divided government.

There is a tendency to assume that the American constitutional order is inherently functional, and that there’s no problem that can’t be solved by replacing some bad actors in the legislature and/or judiciary. Nostalgic appeals to a more functional era are pervasive. In a recent interview with Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan, for example, the dark-horse presidential candidate and legal scholar Lawrence Lessig asserted that the government “has no capacity to make decisions any more” and “it’s trivially easy for any major reform on the left or the right to be blocked,” but that “it’s a 20-year problem” based on the fact that “such a tiny number of people are funding campaigns.”

This is a happy story, despite the outward appearance of despair. If American constitutionalism is essentially functional, but has been ruined by some 5-4 campaign finance decisions issued by the Supreme Court, the problems can be solved. Not easily, but it’s possible to think that the next unified Democratic government can restore order.

But the truth is considerably darker. First of all, Lessig underestimates how difficult major social reform has always been in the United States. It was “trivially easy” for any major reform to be stopped before the author of Citizens United had even been born. The vast majority of the federal welfare and regulatory state was passed during two very brief periods: FDR’s first term and LBJ’s first three years in office. Otherwise, the alleged Golden Age of American politics was largely defined by statis.

Furthermore, it’s not a coincidence that the brief periods of reform occurred during periods of unusually large Democratic supermajorities in Congress. And even these periods were far from unalloyed liberal triumphs: The New Deal, for example, gave disproportionately fewer benefits to African-Americans to win support from Southern Democrats. The American constitutional order was designed to make major changes difficult, and it has largely succeeded.

Lessig is right, however, that some things have gotten worse in the last 20 years. It’s never been easy to pass major reform legislation, and as the first two years of the Obama administration shows, it’s still possible given enough Democrats in Congress. What has changed is that it used to be possible to do basic tasks like keeping the executive and judicial branches properly staffed and the government funded. Congress could also at least pass compromises on issues of lower-order importance. Things have gotten genuinely worse in recent decades in these respects.

Where Lessig is wrong is to think that there’s a magic bullet that can fix the problem. Reducing the role of money in politics and increasing access to the ballot are salutary initiatives that would improve things at the margin, but the dysfunction of American government is rooted deeply in the American constitutional order.

As Matt Yglesias recently explained at Vox, the fundamental problem is the diffusion of accountability that comes from separating the legislative and executive branches. As Yglesias observes, “Within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution.” Whether Democrats or Republicans are blamed for dysfunction in a period of divided government depends largely on who voters tend to support on a tribal level.

A paradox of the American separation-of-powers system is that actions like a government shutdown can hurt the reputation of Congress as a whole without threatening the electability of most individual members, a paradox Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has exploited brilliantly. Whereas congressional leaders in the opposition used to think that they had to collaborate on at least some issues with a president to avoid being punished, McConnell and other contemporary leaders have recognized that denying the president accomplishments hurts the president more than it hurts them. And lest any Republican member of Congress consider returning to the old norms for the good of the country — I know, but let’s pretend for a second — they’re likely to face a viable primary challenge.

Does this mean, as Yglesias argues, that American democracy is “doomed”? This is unclear. But it does mean that the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is likely to get worse before it gets better. And pretending that any single reform — no matter how worthy in itself — can solve these deeper problems is whistling past the graveyard.

 

By: Paul Lemieux, The Week, October 20, 2015

October 24, 2015 Posted by | Democracy, Governing, Separation of Powers | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Romney Wants Credit For Obamacare”: Mitt, ‘Without Romneycare, I Don’t Think We Would Have Obamacare’

Given the Affordable Care Act’s striking successes, it’s not surprising that its champions would look for some credit for bringing health security to millions of families. President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and plenty of other Democrats have reason to be proud of one of this generation’s greatest policy breakthroughs.

It is a little jarring, though, seeing a Republican look for credit, too. MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin reported this afternoon:

In a surprising move, Mitt Romney seemingly took credit on Friday for inspiring the Affordable Care Act – after famously running as the 2012 Republican nominee on a platform of repealing the law.

Romney championed and signed a comprehensive health care law in Massachusetts when he was governor. Known as “Romneycare,” it had strong similarities with Obamacare, including a mandate to purchase insurance, but he had long resisted comparisons between the two. In a Boston Globe obituary of Staples founder and longtime Romney backer Thomas Stemberg, however, the former Republican nominee finally embraced the connection.

“Without Tom pushing it, I don’t think we would have had Romneycare,” Romney told the Boston Globe. “Without Romneycare, I don’t think we would have Obamacare. So, without Tom a lot of people wouldn’t have health insurance.”

And as a factual matter, there’s certainly some truth to that. Romney approved a state-based law that served as an effective blueprint for President Obama’s federal model. The two-time failed Republican presidential candidate has a point when he says “Romneycare” helped pave the way for “Obamacare.”

But that doesn’t make his new boast any less jarring. Romney wants credit for one of the president’s signature accomplishments – which Romney was committed to tearing down just a few years ago?

Those who followed the last two presidential elections closely may recall that Romney’s position on health care got a little convoluted at times. The former one-term governor initially said he believed his state-based plan could serve as a model for the nation. Then he said the opposite.

By 2012, Romney was promising voters that he would – on his first day in the White House – issue an executive order to undo the federal health care law without congressional input, regardless of the consequences.

Or to use Romney’s phrase, he vowed to scrap health insurance for “a lot of people.”

Three years later, however, Romney is apparently shifting gears once again, taking partial credit for the system he embraced, then rejected, then vowed to destroy, and is now re-embracing again.

And to think this guy struggled as a candidate for national office.

Update: MSNBC’s report added, “After an uproar on social media, Romney clarified in a Facebook post that he still opposed Obamacare, but did not backtrack on his apparent praise of the law’s expansion of insurance coverage and its ties to his own legislation.”

Romney wrote that “getting people health insurance is a good thing,” which he followed with some dubious criticisms of the ACA. To my mind, his online clarification changes very little about the substance of the story.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 23, 2015

October 24, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Mitt Romney, Obamacare | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“The Fundamental Attribution Error”: What Hillary’s Benghazi Hearing Revealed About Life Inside The Republican Bubble

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing who Sidney Blumenthal is. If you don’t, and you tuned in midway through Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, you might have concluded that Blumenthal is either a high-ranking al Qaeda leader, a Soviet spy, or some combination of Bernie Madoff and Ted Bundy. In any case, you might have concluded that he’s a world-historical figure whose actions must be understood if America is to move forward into the future.

The ridiculously lengthy discussion about Blumenthal illustrates the problem Republicans have had with this entire investigation: They’re stuck in their own bubble, unable to see what things might look like from outside it.

In case you don’t know, Sid Blumenthal is a former journalist and longtime friend (and sometime employee) of the Clintons. For a variety of reasons, some more legitimate than others, Republicans regard him as a singularly sinister character. When it emerged that he had sent Hillary Clinton lots of emails about Libya (and other matters), they could barely contain their glee, going so far as to subpoena him to testify privately. He apparently failed to give them what they wanted, because up until now committee Chair Trey Gowdy has refused to release his testimony to the public. This is a replay of what happened in 1998 during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when independent counsel Ken Starr forced Blumenthal to testify about what he knew in that case (if you want a lengthy explanation of Blumenthal and his relationship to the Clintons, go here).

The point is that, from within the Republican bubble, Blumenthal’s connection to Benghazi, even if it consisted only of sending Hillary Clinton emails about Libya in general, proves that something fishy was going on. So naturally they’ll waste an hour or two of her testimony talking about the fact that he sent her lots of emails, which proves that…he sent her lots of emails.

This is what happens when you start an investigation that you’re sure will uncover evidence of nefarious goings-on. When you can’t find any malfeasance, you convince yourself that even mundane things are nefarious, like the fact that Hillary Clinton has a friend you don’t like.

Consider another topic of discussion at the hearing: the different stories that came out in the immediate aftermath of the attack explaining why the attack had occurred. The situation was chaotic, in large part because there were nearly simultaneous incidents at other American diplomatic outposts in the Middle East, growing out of protests of an anti-Muslim video that appeared online. At first, the administration said the Benghazi attack was like those in Cairo and Tunis, but it later became clear that it was more organized and planned (though the perpetrators may have opportunistically launched the attack precisely because so many protests were going on in so many places).

How should we understand the administration’s changing explanation? Was it mere spin? A reflection of the information that was available? Or was it scandalous? Throughout, Republicans have treated the Obama administration’s response as though it were not just scandalous, but possibly criminal. For instance, in May of last year, we learned of a memo that a White House communication official wrote at the time, encouraging staffers not to say Benghazi represented a failure of administration policy. In other words, a guy whose job it is to craft spin crafted some spin. But Republicans reacted as though they had caught Barack Obama personally killing those four Americans. “We now have the smoking gun,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham. “It’s the equivalent of what was discovered with the Nixon tapes,” said Charles Krauthammer.

A similarly enlightening discussion was brought up in Clinton’s hearing, with Republicans expressing such faux-outrage you’d think they were talking about one of the most diabolical propaganda campaigns in human history, and not a few comments that a few administration officials made to a few television shows. At another point in the hearing, a Republican congressman spent nearly 15 minutes aggressively interrogating Clinton over whether — brace yourself — her press secretary tried to make her look good to reporters. Only a truly diabolical figure could contemplate such a thing.

We’re all tempted to assume the worst about our political opponents. They can’t be just people we disagree with or even people whose values are different from ours. If we’re partisan enough, we end up thinking that everything our opponents do is for the worst motives. Those people on the other side don’t even make mistakes; when they screw up, it just shows how venomous their very hearts are. It’s the political version of what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error,” in which we attribute our own actions to circumstance, but we attribute other people’s actions to their inherent nature. If I cut you off in traffic, it’s because I didn’t realize you were in my blind spot; if you cut me off, it’s because you’re a jerk.

And if Americans died at Benghazi, well it just had to be an outgrowth of Hillary Clinton’s infinite capacity for evil. She got emails from a guy we don’t like? Proof of just how wicked the whole thing was! Somebody in the administration described the events in a way that turned out to be inaccurate? Yet more proof!

Many conservatives watching the hearing no doubt concluded that it reinforced everything they think about Clinton: that she’s dishonest and untrustworthy, that she’s surrounded by unsavory characters, and that she is utterly at fault for the deaths of those four Americans in Benghazi. They also probably thought the Republicans on the committee were heroic in their efforts to pin her down.

But it’s hard to imagine lots of Americans who would agree, unless they are already committed Republicans. It wouldn’t be the first time Republicans thought they were doing great, while the rest of America saw the situation a little differently.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Week, October 23, 2015

October 24, 2015 Posted by | Benghazi, Hillary Clinton, House Select Committee on Benghazi, Trey Gowdy | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Self-Defeating GOP”: The Difference Between Trying To Actually Legislate And Simply Grandstanding

These days, there is never a dull moment in the Republican Party. Today, the House of Representatives voted to pass a bill that would repeal significant portions of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law. This time the repeal measures are packaged in a budget reconciliation bill, so named because it carries out instructions that were outlined in the budget resolution which passed Congress earlier this year.

Budget reconciliation bills are subject to special rules which allow for limited debate in the Senate and are thus able to pass that chamber with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes necessary to end a filibuster. Opponents of the health care law view the reconciliation bill as their first opportunity to move a bill targeting the Affordable Care Act through the Senate and on to the president’s desk. Although the president is expected to veto the measure, many Republicans feel the political exercise would be a symbolic victory.

However, not everyone in the Republican Party is happy with the legislation. The Hill reports that three Republican senators, Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah, will oppose the bill because it only repeals parts of the Affordable Care Act and not the entire law. The authors of the reconciliation bill were limited in what they could include in the package by the rules of the reconciliation process in the Senate. With narrow margins in the Senate, the defection of the three Senators puts Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., perilously close to losing the vote altogether.

The three opposing senators have offered a plan to override the Senate parliamentarian and pass a more aggressive bill as the solution to the conundrum. As of this moment, it does not appear that their proposal has a lot of support.

The revolt over the reconciliation bill is illustrative of the overwhelming tension within the Republican Party. On the one hand is the segment of the party that wants to operate within the parameters of what is achievable, and on the other is the segment of the party that wants to adhere to strict conservative principles no matter what. It’s the difference between trying to actually legislate and simply grandstanding.

The commitment of Cruz and his followers to their talking points regarding full repeal is so blind they don’t even realize they are trying to nullify Senate rules just a few weeks after the conservative House Freedom Caucus managed to force out Speaker John Boehner for his supposed disregard of the House rules. The current party dust up is even more striking because it is over a bill that never has a chance to become law to begin with. As Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., told The Hill, “It’s a pretend vote and people are upset because it doesn’t pretend enough.”

The conflict is not serving the party well. Never mind trying to keep the government open or negotiate a budget deal. It appears that even symbolic political achievements – in this case a standoff with the president – are now at risk. If this keeps up, Democrats won’t have to do anything. They’ll be able to stand back and watch the Republican Party defeat itself.

 

By: Cary Gibson, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog, U. S. News and World Report, October 23, 2105

October 24, 2015 Posted by | Budget Reconcilation, Conservatives, GOP, Obamacare | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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