Being Exceedingly Clever

Inauguration Day is over and yes, Beyoncé lip-synched the Star Spangled Banner – or she didn’t – because the Marine Band said Beyoncé did not actually sing during the inaugural and then backpedaled – so there’s some dispute, as if it matters. At least that gave the folks at Fox News something to talk about, a sort of symbol for what they see as the essential fakery of the Obama administration, and the essential inherent laziness and cheating and worthlessness of black folks who think they’re big stars. Not that they’d say that directly – it just fits into their general narrative. Yep, everyone knows that Obama cannot even form a coherent sentence, much less a coherent thought, without his faithful teleprompter. It’s all of a piece. America fawns over the wrong sort of people, thinking they’re wonderful, but Fox News viewers know better. They’ve seen Donald Trump demand, again and again, that America be allowed to see Obama’s college transcripts – there’s no way Obama could have gotten into Columbia and then Harvard Law other than by getting points simply for being black, which is an outrage. The same talk was in the air when Sonya Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court – the woman was a dim bulb who kept getting breaks others couldn’t get, just because she was both Hispanic and a woman – and that wasn’t right. The Beyoncé story was more of the same. These folks are always trying to fool us, and do fool most Americans. The nation needs to wake up.

That’s the reason that the Beyoncé story had legs – sometimes the most trivial of things carry heavy but implicit symbolic weight. It must have been that, or no one over at Fox wanted to talk about the new Obama that emerged on Inauguration Day – the gracious and thoughtful gentleman, as always, with the impossibly perfect and impossibly loveable family, who decided to open his second term with a speech that had as its core message that he won, Republicans didn’t, and he and the country were moving on to do useful things, for the good of all, and Republicans could choose to fret and fuss for another four years, but no one would give a damn, because they didn’t matter now.

That was discussed in detail here – but the whole thing was pretty simple. The message to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan – “The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security… do not make us a nation of takers.” The message to the climate-change deniers – “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.” The message to the neocon war-everywhere-right-now crowd – “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” The message to the voter suppression folks in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Florida and elsewhere – “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” The message to the NRA – “Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.” There was also a message to the Tea Party crowd – “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” Oh, and by the way, stop picking on gay people, and women, and Hispanics. The people have spoken on all these matters. Deal with it, as constructively as you can, or get out of the damned way.

No one expected that and the right was outraged, mainly on Fox News, which led Jeff Greenfield to imagine what was going through the mind of the next Republican nominee as he listened to Obama’s speech, which might have gone something like this:

I gotta give the guy credit: Defining that agenda as the fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence was audacious. It was an obvious echo of what Martin Luther King, Jr. did almost half a century ago at the Lincoln Memorial. Back then King said America could not be true to the promise of the Declaration that “all men are created equal” without letting black Americans vote. Now Obama says those words included women, gays, immigrants and young people’s futures – and that they meant his ideas about gay marriage, immigration reform and the economy…

Well, heck, if you’re in my party, that’s just the way the playing field is. And we’ve got a bigger problem. All of us Republicans got November’s message: The American electorate, at least the presidential electorate, has changed, and changed permanently. It is blacker, browner, younger, better educated than it was even a decade or so ago. …

But here’s the maddening part: The road to the nomination leads through Iowa, South Carolina and other places where the ideas that win cheers from the caucus and primary-goers are certain to drive away the parts of the electorate that are growing.

There’s a problem here, and there’s only one solution. Do a Bill Clinton:

After 1988, Clinton saw the political devastation: The Democratic Party had lost three consecutive presidential elections by electoral landslides. What he understood was that to win the White House, a Democrat had to confront his party with some hard truths. So he did.

In his speeches, Clinton said bluntly that the American people no longer trusted Democrats with their money or their safety – recognition that the crime issue had cleaved millions of working-class Democrats from their party. He told them the blue-collar jobs that had elevated them into relative prosperity were gone and were not coming back. He broke with his party’s base on specific issues ranging from the death penalty to free trade. And he labeled himself “a Different Kind of Democrat.”

It worked. Now it’s the Republicans’ turn:

What does that mean for me? I think the only way for a Republican to win now is to do what Clinton did… I’m going to have to tell my fellow Republicans that too many voters trust us neither with their personal freedom nor with their economic interests. I’m going to have to explain our conservative beliefs in ways that go beyond one-liners… And maybe I need to find a “Sistah Souljah” moment of my own; Clinton’s rejection of the anti-white sentiments of a rap singer proved highly politically effective. Rush or Sean ought to offer up a host of opportunities.

Jeff Greenfield is dreaming. This is a hypothetical Republican, not a real one. In the real world you toss that red meat to that rabid homogeneous base in your gerrymandered safe district and get reelected again and again. They hang on every word from Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Yeah, you can never run for national office, but it’s a good life, such as it is. That also means the national party will find itself a permanent minority party, but that’s their problem, not yours – and maybe they’ll come up with something clever. There might be a way to stick it to the Democrats in some devastating national way. You never know.

Maybe there is, but the week before, their top budget guy threw cold water on one of those ideas:

House Republicans are still publicly pushing Democrats to accept spending cuts in exchange for increasing the country’s borrowing limit. But in private, they’re being clear with their members about the huge economic consequences of breaching the debt ceiling – hammering the point that they can’t use default as a threat in budget negotiations with the White House and Senate.

After meeting with members of the GOP conference at the party’s retreat in Williamsburg on Thursday, VA, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the GOP’s top budget guy, told reporters, in so many words, that they’re trying to talk their members off a ledge.

“I think what matters most is that people have a very clear view of what’s coming, so that there are no surprises,” Ryan said. “And that means setting expectations accordingly, so that we can proceed in a unified basis.”

This is pretty simple:

Despite three looming deadlines – the debt limit, the sequester, and expiration of annual federal appropriations – all of which, if missed, will trigger automatic cuts to federal spending, Republicans can’t expect that Democrats will accede to all of their demands.

The party lost the presidency two times in a row, failed to regain control of the Senate when everyone thought they would, lost House seats, and all the polling is against them – so expecting Democrats to fold on these fiscal matters is delusional. Why would they? Someone had to explain that. Paul Ryan told reporters that part of the purpose of the retreat was to help members “recognize the realities” of divided government. Guys, listen up, give up on the debt limit fight – and besides, threatening to blow up the world’s economy is an empty threat. No one is going to do that. No one is that dumb.

That’s a problem, and one that calls for something exceedingly clever. The off-site in Williamsburg wrapped up, everyone took a day off and then Obama gave his help-out-or-get-out-of-the-way speech, and these guys finally did come up with something exceedingly clever:

On the surface, the proposal seems like a (temporary) capitulation in the debt-ceiling stand-off: House Republicans will vote tomorrow to raise the debt ceiling for three months, on the condition that the Senate passes a budget that will presumably include significant deficit reduction.

But they’re not really voting to raise the debt limit:

The way the bill is written, Republicans won’t technically be voting to raise the borrowing limit by a set amount, as Congress typically has done. Rather, “the bill would suspend the section of the law that mandates a limit on government borrowing” before May 19, explains George Washington University professor Sarah Binder, a congressional procedure expert. Then, on May 19, “the debt limit would automatically be increased to account for the borrowing that occurred during that period.”

What? Alex Pareene explains it this way:

The big debt ceiling question over the last year has been whether the Republican Party’s grown-ups, who understand that “not raising the debt ceiling” is a horrible idea, would be able to convince the nuts, who believe – and they believe this because the “grown-ups” spent the last year recklessly dissembling on the function and purpose of the debt ceiling in order to score political points against Barack Obama – that not raising the debt ceiling would be no big deal and possibly even beneficial to the American economy, because it would force us to take “tough medicine.” It looked for all the world like the elite were losing the argument. The disorganized and hilarious coup against John Boehner was proof that a significant chunk of the House majority wasn’t going to listen to reason. Boehner’s subsequent passage of legislation with a minority of Republican votes - a violation of “The Hastert Rule” - seemed to indicate that the only way forward was bypassing the nuts entirely.

Thankfully for the nation and for Republican unity, a compromise has been reached. The new plan is to raise the debt ceiling while pretending that we’re not raising the debt ceiling. And it might pass, thanks to conservatives convincing themselves that it won’t really count as raising the debt ceiling.

Actually it’s kind of like Beyoncé lip-synching Star Spangled Banner – not what it seems at all – and Suzy Khimm explains the difficulties with this:

Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a former Senate budget staffer, says that the debt limit hasn’t been handled this way since at least World War II. By picking a date rather than a dollar amount to raise the debt limit, the proposal raises some significant questions about how the government will deal with spending during that three-month period. The debt-limit deal is only meant to cover obligations that require payment before May 19. That means the Treasury can’t borrow gobs and gobs of money just before the deadline just to keep us from hitting another debt-ceiling. But there are certain obligations such as tax refunds that don’t have a “very clear mandate” as to when they need to be paid, Bell explains.

Right now, it’s also unclear whether May 19 is the drop-dead date for hitting the debt ceiling, or whether the Treasury Department will again be able to invoke its “extraordinary powers” to buy a few more weeks’ time. (I’ve queried Treasury and will update the post if and when I hear back.)

All this could lead to more turbulence for a market that’s already nervous about the debt-ceiling standoff. “Markets don’t like new things,” Bell said. “It is not only different, it raises all sorts of uncertainties that will have some discernible impact on short-term rates and market behavior.”

Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be exceedingly clever and that isn’t the half of it, as Matthew Yglesias explains here:

In addition, they would include a gimmicky “no budget, no pay” provision that says members of the Senate will have their pay cut unless they pass a budget.

In practice, it shouldn’t be hard for Senate Democrats to pass a budget. They haven’t passed one in recent years because, given the partisan gridlock in recent years, the budgeting is de facto done through measures like the Budget Control Act and last-minute deals to avert government shutdowns. Given that, there’s no substantive purpose served in passing a budget, and senators haven’t wanted to open themselves up to attack ads accusing them of having voted for such-and-such deficits or such-and-such tax hikes. Ducking budget votes, however, has become a GOP talking point all of its own. Democrats can respond with a budget resolution that calls for some fairly hazy revenue-increasing tax reform measures and call it a day.

It’s an ongoing mess and a bit of a farce, but it works, or has worked so far, but now there’s new madness:

There’s a good case that “no budget, no pay” rules are unconstitutional under the 27th amendment. No sitting Congress is allowed to raise or cut its own pay, only the pay of future Congresses. The GOP theory is that the provision would only suspend members’ pay until the passage of a budget and not actually cut it. That sounds like a distinction without a difference to me, and certainly you could launch a plausible lawsuit around it.

My view is that it would be strongly preferable to avoid injecting legal uncertainty into the debt ceiling situation, especially legal uncertainty that’s not really about anything. What’s needed here isn’t a “no budget, no pay” rule in the debt ceiling bill, it’s an agreement between congressional leaders. John Boehner has to agree to lift (or “suspend”) the debt ceiling and Harry Reid has to agree that Senate Democrats will write and pass a budget, exposing themselves to GOP criticism over their tax and spending plans. That way, the debt apocalypse will be averted, Republicans can say they forced Democrats to pass a budget, and Democrats will be held accountable by the public for their fiscal vision.

That’s far too sensible to ever happen. We get this, and in three months we get to have this exact same showdown, again, and maybe every three months until the end of time. Still Ezra Klein says this sets a delightful precedent:

Congress will have shown it can make the debt ceiling disappear. For three months, the debt ceiling simply won’t exist. And it won’t exist for exactly the right reasons.

House Republicans are choosing to “suspend” rather than “increase” because it sounds really bad to say you voted for an increase in the debt ceiling. What, $16.4 trillion in debt isn’t enough for you?

Well, no, it’s not. It’s not enough even if we pass Paul Ryan’s budget tomorrow. It’s not enough even if we begin bringing the debt-to-GDP ratio down. The debt ceiling isn’t adjusted for inflation or economic growth. It’s just raw dollars. So even when our finances are fully in order and the national debt is holding steady or declining as a percentage of our economy, we typically still have to raise the debt ceiling. That’s why, in 1997, when we the economy was booming and a surplus was around the corner, Congress had to raise the debt ceiling by $450 billion.

It has to be done in good times or bad. Maybe we should be like every other nation in the world, except Denmark, and have the legislature agree to pay for what they pass into law, even when it means borrowing money. That’s not in the cards, so Greg Sargent adds this:

The question now is how House Democrats react. My bet is that they will adopt a wait-and-see attitude, designed to force John Boehner to prove he can come up with the votes for it himself. It turns out this is anything but assured: John Harwood quotes one Republican member saying it’s far from certain that he has the votes, which would mean another “Plan B” fiasco and another blow to Boehner’s leadership.

It’s hard to imagine House Republicans won’t be able to get the votes to pass this extension, but really, at this point, it’s impossible to be prepared for what they’ll do. This could be seen by House conservatives as yet another cave – one coming after the fiscal cliff surrender – and this time, Republicans get absolutely nothing in exchange for backing down. So who knows?

It really doesn’t pay to be exceedingly clever, and at MSNBC, Ned Resnikoff is appropriately exasperated:

Of course, the panic is purely man-made. If the United States eliminated its debt ceiling – a theoretically simple thing to do – then it would never again face a debt ceiling crisis. In fact, Congress could even keep the debt ceiling so long as it returned to its historical practice of raising the limit as part of an annual routine. Instead, Congress has adopted a new routine: Republicans make their demands, Democrats denounce them as hostage takers, and the two parties ink a deal to prolong the standoff for another few months.

The only question is whether all of this is the product of a clever long-term strategy, or just the result of short-term incentives. The Democrats, at least, seem to be acting in a purely reactive fashion: Time and time again, the Obama administration has signaled that it is willing to make some remarkable concessions (such as raising the Medicare eligibility age or reducing Social Security disbursements) in order to prevent whatever the emergency of the week happens to be.

Republicans have remained intransigent in the face of such an accommodating negotiating partner. One of the reasons for that intransigence is obvious: The ideological commitment of the Tea Party caucus and the party’s base to truly radical budget gouging, beyond what the Democratic Party could ever accept.

But the perpetual panic cycle may also just suit the GOP politically. It allows them to constantly play the budget warriors, which appeals to both their donors and their grassroots supporters. It aggravates Democratic supporters, who watch their own party acclimate itself to continually escalating demands for austerity.

It seems we can mistake absolutism for principle and substitute spectacle for politics, and treat name-calling as reasoned debate – or we’re told that’s just the way things work. Resnikoff is not impressed:

The Democrats aren’t left much time to enact a positive agenda when they’re busy defusing a time bomb; so instead of turning the bomb off, Republicans have every reason to extend the fuse. Similarly, having a juicy crisis to deal with absolves legislators from all parties of having to tackle other priorities. Deferring the crisis leaves all relevant parties with a pure voting record, unsullied by any firm commitments on spending or revenue.

As Resnikoff notes, that’s especially advantageous to one particular side, which is probably why Obama felt he had to say deal with being out of the mainstream of public opinion, and on the losing end of elections, as constructively as you can, or get out of the damned way. And he wasn’t lip-syncing. And it wasn’t Beyoncé who was faking the Star Spangled Banner, really. Someone else had been faking all along.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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