Local Blogs

By Tom Cushing

Mudbath, Redux?

Uploaded: Jan 16, 2013

Well, I was all set to write something about Executive Orders, and how there have been almost 14,000 of them -- hoping to comfort the nervous and/or trigger-happy. Those Orders have covered a huge range of topics, and have been used for both good -- desegregation of defense plants during WWII comes to mind -- it was a factor giving impetus to the post-war civil rights movement, and ill cleared the way for relocation of Japanese Americans into internment camps at Manzanar, CA and elsewhere in the west. Some have been found unconstitutional by the Supremes in the ordinary course of separation-of-powers processes (e.g., Truman's seizure of the steel mills). They are not all that unusual -- Presidents Bush2 and Obama have issued them at about the same rate (290 vs. 145).

But there's this semi-solid we've stepped-in, again, and once it's on your shoe, it demands attention.

The now-familiar pungency of the debt-ceiling mess has returned in earnest. To review, Congress votes to authorize payment of Past government spending, when those invoices take the total national debt above a set threshold. That threshold has been raised 74 times since 1962, including 18 times under President Reagan.

The first 73 of those times were completely uncontroversial -- for better or worse, We-the-People had incurred those debts; all that this vote meant was that we, via the federal government -- would continue to be good for them. To personalize the situation, remember that stupid boat you bought, or the time-share you never used? You still had to pay for them, even as you resolved to spend smarter in the future. Well, it's a lot like that here: invading that country might not have been the best idea, in retrospect, but when the trillion-dollar bills for it come due, they must be paid. Past bills you pay; future bills you may choose to avoid. To renounce those past bills would not make us Greece, but far worse: the Greeks, at least, are not dead-beat debtors.

The 74th ceiling increase authorization was in 2011, you may recall, and it was astonishing in its absurdist theatre. The House, led by Tea Party insurgents, demanded Future spending cuts in return for their acquiescence in paying our Past obligations, many of which, of course, they themselves had voted-for. Intrinsically meaningless, the "crisis" set the stage for the "fiscal cliff" calamity just witnessed, it cost $2 Billion in higher near-term borrowing costs (a non-partisan GAO number) and is projected to cost $20B by the time its effects work their way entirely through the system. All that unnecessary expense -- in the name of lowering the cost burden of the federal government? Congrats, gents and ladies.

So, since even flatworms learn from pain, surely we won't repeat such tomfoolery. Except that we are back, precisely where we were, with the GOP curiously demanding Future spending cuts in return for their agreement to allow us to pay our Past bills. They are again holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage to their demands -- which is tantamount to holding a gun to their own heads. (Trigger, please?)

The President has said, sensibly, that the decision of whether to pay our Past bills is distinct from what we will choose to spend Next Year, and the outcome ought to be clear -- of course we should pay our bills. Everybody in Congress voted for something in the Past spending now due. Further, he has chosen the tack of attempting to shame The Shameless, saying this week that he will not ransom the nation's credit rating; rather that he expects the Congress to do the right thing, or face the wrath of We-the-People in 2014.

I think there's risk in that tack, as the Congressional districts have been gerrymandered to the point of being remarkably safe for incumbents, regardless of their sanity (Cf. Bachmann, Michele). Much of the heartland is as red as the coasts are blue, and it's not clear to me that there will be a tide in 2014 that sweeps out the recalcitrants. Expecting statesperson-like behavior from a group that has never so much as won a seat at the adult table is to court severe disappointment, and another gridlock. I fear this tack leads to the falls.

Put a kinder, gentler way, I think the Tea'd-up Republicans believe they were sent to Congress to upset the status quo; to borrow a phrase from strange bedfellow Malcolm X: "by any means necessary." If those means include taking every advantage, and making every element of the nation's economic life more austere, while holding center stage on its dog-with-a-bone issue, then those are good things that will eventually wean us away from the deficit-spending habit. If their heels are dug-in, we may be headed for another credit downgrade, and even a government shut-down before somebody blinks.

That means that social security checks, veterans' benefits, unemployment comp and food relief for the 20 million Americans who remain without work, and everything else the feds spend money on will be delayed. Millions of our fellow citizens will suffer in colder, hungrier circumstances. Will any of them think that's worth it, to make a point? If it comes to a government shutdown, I know precisely whose paychecks I want held-up first.

Of course, on a macro scale, a protracted stand-off also portends problems for the fragile recovery that so far continues a-shaky-pace. It is funded, in part, by government spending that makes-up for tepid private sector demand. If, indeed, the feds have to hold back or cancel spending for want of authority to undertake it, lay-offs will resume, and the ship of state will slide back toward recession. Will that be worth it, to make a point?

If the President is to succeed with his "let's be adults and do the nation's business" strategy, he will have to stay Way out in-front on this issue, maintaining its framing as above, and not allowing Messrs. McConnell and Boehner to conflate Past spending we owe and Future spending we don't owe in the public perception as they are busily trying to do. If it again descends into a mud bath, well, as my Mama used to say, "Son, never get in a fight with a pig. You'll both get equally dirty, and the pig is having fun."

I hate to write this, but I think we're in for a stupidly bumpy ride...again. If the flatworms ever organize a political party, I'm in.