It Gets Worse

That anti-bullying thing, the It Gets Better project, was petty nifty. Almost everyone did a public service spot, save for Michele Bachmann and the crew at Fox News. Traditional values regarding the inherent evil of even acknowledging vaguely homosexual tendencies far outweighs all those teen suicides, or something. But everyone else got it. No one should be bullied, for any reason, and if you are being bullied, hang in there – it gets better. Some people will stand by you, more people than you imagine – even famous people. There’s always hope. The sun will come up tomorrow. Things always look darkest before the dawn. Things do get better, unless they don’t. Yeah, but you have to believe they will. We’re Americans after all. We do believe that. This was an expression of something quintessentially American. That those who currently call themselves conservatives are deeply invested in bullying, on social matters and in foreign policy and on economic issues, is an anomaly. Not everyone worships Donald Trump. That anti-bullying thing was wildly successful.

It was also deceptive. Timid teens being tormented by their peers is one thing. Even if social conservatives don’t like it, that can be stopped. It’s a matter of common decency. Politics, where we argue about public policy and the kind of country we want to have, is another matter entirely. Over the last several years that has devolved into nothing but nastiness and total gridlock. Anything that does get done is always framed in terms of bullying, and he who bullies best wins.

We can thank the no-compromise-ever Tea Party crowd for that. They’ll shut down the government if they don’t get their way, which they couldn’t get in the first place because they didn’t have the votes to stop this and that outrage they see, or they’ll force the government into default, triggering worldwide economic collapse, unless what everyone else agreed on is stopped, right now. It’s classic bullying, with an overlay of self-righteous self-pitying victimhood, and it’s not getting better. It creates one existential crisis after another. We simply lurch from the last one, which was barely resolved at best, to the next one, where everyone is dug in and the situation seems hopeless. It’s no way to run a country, but it is what it is. It doesn’t get better. It only gets worse.

Events don’t stand still either. Things keep happening to trigger the bully-response, and that just happened again:

The U.S. will run out of borrowing authority under the nation’s $16.7-trillion debt limit in mid-October, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew formally told Congress on Monday as he implored lawmakers to act soon to avoid a government default.

Lew had last updated Congress on the debt limit in May, saying that he expected the Treasury to be able to continue borrowing until at least Labor Day.

The new deadline comes as lawmakers prepare to return to Washington next month to battle over government spending. Republican leaders have demanded budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit, and some lawmakers want President Obama and Democrats to agree to other policy concession as well.

This is a bare-bones Los Angeles Times item, but it does set straight what Republicans always fudge:

Raising the limit doesn’t authorize new spending; it simply allows the government to pay the bills for spending Congress already has approved.

This is NOT about authorizing new spending. Got it? This is an accounts payable issue. This about paying for what Congress already spent – on two massive wars in the last decade, for example. Cutting taxes on the wealthy to the bone didn’t help much either. Borrowing seven hundred billion to save the banks and thus the whole economy in the last months of the Bush administration, because it turned out the financial sector couldn’t regulate itself after all, didn’t help much either. We spent the money, which we raised by selling Treasury bonds. Those who hold those bonds would like us at least to pay the interest on them, even if the principle is due later. We shouldn’t even hit we may not pay either. If US Treasuries turn out to be worthless, the whole house of cards comes down. We should decide to declare them worthless, because Obama refuses to defund and thus eliminate Obamacare, which was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law and ruled quite constitutional by the Supreme Court. That’s nuts. Two years ago even talking about that led Standard & Poor’s to cut our AAA credit rating to an AA+ rating, where it still stands. Had we actually defaulted US Treasuries would be what are called junk bonds. The Chinese and everyone else suddenly would have been holding useless paper. It would have been chaos, which explains this:

Lew warned that a standoff risked “dire consequences” and urged Congress to act quickly to “remove the threat of default.”

“Protecting the full faith and credit of the United States is the responsibility of Congress because only Congress can extend the nation’s borrowing authority,” Lew wrote to House and Senate leaders, with copies sent to all lawmakers.

“Failure to meet that responsibility would cause irreparable harm to the American economy,” he said.

Yeah, we wouldn’t be able to borrow another cent, even to fund ongoing activities. Oddly, the government technically hit its debt limit again in May, and since then the Treasury has been using what are called extraordinary measures to juggle our finances and continue borrowing to pay its bills, shifting money here and there. But that’s run its course. No more shifting is possible. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made a combined dividend payment of nearly sixty billion on their bailouts, which helped a bit, but that’s a one-time thing. We’re at the limit. We will hit the wall in the middle of October:

At that point, the government would only be able to pay bills with cash on hand of about $50 billion on any given day. Because it’s not possible to estimate precisely when that cash would run out, Lew said Congress shouldn’t wait until the last minute.

“Congress should act as soon as possible to protect America’s good credit by extending normal borrowing authority well before any risk of default becomes imminent,” he wrote.

Yeah, well, consider this:

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) promised a “whale of a fight” over the debt ceiling Monday and said that he wanted cuts greater than the increase in the limit.

“I’ve made it clear that we’re not going to increase the debt limit without cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit,” he said at a Boise fundraiser for Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), according to the Idaho Statesman. “The president doesn’t think this is fair, thinks I’m being difficult to deal with. But I’ll say this: It may be unfair but what I’m trying to do here is to leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would produce if left to its own devices. We’re going to have a whale of a fight.”

Said Boehner, “I wish I could tell you it was going to be pretty and polite, and it would all be finished a month before we’d ever get to the debt ceiling. Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way.”

He’ll be a bully, because that’s how things get done, things his side want done, even if those things were settled long ago, and he never had the votes to stop them, which led to this:

“Let me reiterate what our position is, and it is unequivocal,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday. “We will not negotiate with Republicans in Congress over Congress’ responsibility to pay the bills that Congress has racked up, period.”

That’s a refusal to be bullied, and at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum takes it from there:

Politically, this means that Republicans don’t really have the option of quickly passing a 2014 budget (or a short-term continuing resolution) and then taking some time off to plan for their latest round of debt ceiling hostage-taking at the end of the year. If mid-October really is the drop-dead date, it means that budget negotiations in late September and debt ceiling negotiations in early October pretty much run right into each other. It’s Fiscal Cliff 2.0.

I don’t quite know what this does to John Boehner’s fragile attempts to keep the lunatic wing of his party under control. Nothing good, probably. I’m also not sure what it does to President Obama’s promise not to negotiate over the debt ceiling. If all of this stuff get munged [don’t ask] together, then everyone’s going to get mighty hazy mighty fast about what exactly is being negotiated.

So that’s that. Hazy is the new outlook.

Later in the day, Drum added more:

It’s pretty obvious that Obama regrets negotiating over the debt ceiling back in 2011, thus giving Republicans an expectation that he might do it again. At the time, I think Obama was genuinely eager to pass a Grand Bargain on long-term deficit reduction and viewed the debt ceiling as a good pretext, one that would make both Democrats and Republicans more likely to come to an agreement. In the end, that failed, and this time around there’s really nothing Obama wants from Republicans. They had their chance at a serious debt-reduction deal and turned it down, and Obama obviously has no desire to waste his time with that again. Besides, with the deficit already plummeting, he doesn’t need a deal anymore and couldn’t get congressional Democrats to support one even if he did.

So he can stand firm pretty easily because there’s nothing much Republicans can offer him. The only leverage they have is a government shutdown, and that isn’t much of a threat. Both Obama and John Boehner know perfectly well that a shutdown would hurt Republicans more than it would hurt Democrats.

This makes the Republicans’ position absurd:

But that’s logic, and logic is selling at a deep discount these days. The fever swamp wants a debt ceiling default, and there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to force one through. Boehner just doesn’t have the clout or the influence to stop his lemmings from racing over the cliff. At this point, the most germane question probably isn’t whether Republicans are going to force a default, but how long they’ll hold out after they’ve done it. Just how badly do global markets have to panic before they finally come to their senses?

It really doesn’t get better, only worse, and Alex Seitz-Wald adds this:

This new timeline will also affect the other big issue awaiting Congress when it returns from the August recess: The effort to defund Obamacare.

GOP leaders know the scheme put forward by Ted Cruz and others to shut down the government unless Obamacare is defunded is hopeless, but they risk mutiny in their ranks if they don’t at least pay lip service to it.

So they will:

House Speaker John Boehner has been playing a familiar game of bait and switch with his base by promising to let House Republicans do something crazy in the future in order to get them to stop threatening to do something crazy now. He treats his members the same way a gambler treats his loan shark. “C’mon, spot me again – I swear I’ll pay up next time!” …

In the case of Obamacare, House leaders have been trying to talk their members into claiming victory on sequestration cuts and abandoning the effort to defund the health care law. But assuming that won’t appease them (and it won’t), GOP aides have floated using the debt ceiling, instead of the government shutdown, as the bargaining chip. An aide to Eric Cantor told Reuters yesterday that the debt limit provides a good “leverage point” to try to force action on Obamacare.

Swapping the debt ceiling hostage for the government shutdown hostage, while even more dangerous, had the benefit of buying GOP leaders some time – or at least it did until the debt limit deadline got moved up.

That’s the problem here:

Congress comes back into session on Sept. 9. It will have just three weeks to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government before the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1. Most people had expected Treasury to hit the debt limit in mid-November or even December, so Boehner could have played his standard game of kicking the apocalypse can down the road. He’d get the House to pass a continuing resolution by promising to use the debt ceiling to attack Obamacare later, and then he’d get a month or two to figure out how to defuse this newest crisis.

But Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s letter yesterday blows up this whole strategy.

Yep, that’s a bitch:

Now, Boehner can’t keep bluffing to his members. Two weeks is not enough time for them to forget that they just caved on Obamacare, so they’re probably not going to be in the mood to do it again. This was John Boehner’s escape hatch, and now it’s closing.

Seitz-Wald also notes this:

“Let me reiterate what our position is, and it is unequivocal. We will not negotiate with Republicans in Congress over Congress’ responsibility to pay the bills that Congress has racked up, period,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday. “We have never defaulted, and we must never default. That is our position, 100 percent, full stop.”

It may not get better, but you can simply refuse to be bullied.

Salon’s Brian Beutler then complicates matters:

What we have here is a misunderstanding of what Boehner’s capable of and what needs to happen from a member-management perspective for the House to increase the debt limit.

The ideal scenario, whether borrowing authority expires in October or November is as follows: Boehner introduces legislation that both increases (or extends) the debt limit and includes some goodies for conservatives that make the bill a non-starter with Senate Democrats and the President (maybe a year-long delay of the individual mandate – let your imaginations run wild); that bill fails on the House floor; everyone panics; faced with no better option, Boehner breaks the Hastert rule, puts a tidy, Senate-passed debt limit bill on the floor, and we all dress up as Speaker Pelosi for Halloween.

Save for dressing up as Nancy Pelosi for Halloween, that’s the ideal scenario, and there are others:

As you can see, there are a number of ways that actual events might deviate from the above scenario. Boehner could surprise everyone and actually get a debt limit bill through the House with 218 Republican votes. The Senate could fail to pass a debt limit bill of its own. Maybe party leaders make a collective decision to punt.

Maybe, maybe, maybe – the outlook really is hazy, and so far everyone’s playing their part:

Boehner isn’t making any extreme procedural demands. And just this morning Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made clear that Democrats’ offer to Boehner remains “nothing,” – including relatively weak hacks at Obamacare.

“Is there any circumstance under which the administration would accept either a delay in parts of Obamacare or a defunding of parts of Obamacare?” asked CNBC host John Harwood.

“No,” Lew said. This might sound alarmingly confrontational but it’s actually exactly where we ought to be at this point in the story.

If the mid-October deadline does actually create problems for Boehner, or he decides he wants to go one more round, he has another option: He can extend appropriations and the debt limit simultaneously, and schedule both to expire at the same time.

That would mean another New Year’s Eve showdown, which really doesn’t make anything better for Boehner:

He can even pretend it creates new leverage for the GOP. Indeed, here the GOP really does have leverage: specifically over whether people like me get to enjoy the holidays. But as far as extracting concessions from Obama goes, this option too would simply delay the inevitable.

Beutler also sees this as part of the death of the Republican Party, which was already underway:

Anti-Obamacare dead-enders have reached the phase of their campaign to destroy the Affordable Care Act where they’re inviting mockery and derision from the very people they’re trying to convince.

The latest headline-grabber comes out of Ohio, where conservatives are organizing a protest outside of one of House Speaker John Boehner’s congressional offices where they’ll be chanting about “Boehnercare” – a new moniker intended to serve as a wakeup call to GOP congressional leaders: If you don’t adopt our self-defeating tactics, you’ll be as responsible for the ACA as Obama and the Democrats.

I interpret the news as a late act of desperation from a segment of the conservative base that’s running out of time and options. Although the entire movement is united behind the belief that Obamacare needs to be repealed only part of it has accepted the obvious fact that the 2012 election put that goal nearly out of reach. The rest are holding on to a fantasy (a lucrative, publicity-rich fantasy) that Obamacare can be repealed or hobbled or at least delayed before its major benefits come into effect over the coming weeks.

It’s not working:

In that sense, this August’s congressional recess has been a case study in how minority parties react when faced with opponents they can’t defeat. Instead of uniting in common cause against the enemy, they turn on each other. With their backs against the wall, they aim fire to either side, instead of straight ahead. And there’s some new evidence that it’s taking a toll on the party at a national level.

Consider this:

“This is about stopping the worst law that has ever been passed, something we believe will destroy the country, and not all Republicans are willing to stop it. We need to draw a line in the sand,” Senate Conservatives Fund executive director Matt Hoskins told the Hill. “Anyone who votes to fund ObamaCare should have a primary challenge – they’re part of the problem and they should be replaced.”

That’s just one of many examples. It really doesn’t get better for Republicans, only worse – but that suggests another possibility. Perhaps there should be a new It Gets Better Project – for politicians. Ignore the bulling. Understand lots of people will stand by you, because they believe in common decency. Lots of people do – more than you think. It gets better, really.

Nope, that’ll never work. That sort of thing has to be true. In politics, it isn’t. It only gets worse.


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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One Response to It Gets Worse

  1. Rick says:

    My problem with Boehner demanding “cuts greater than the increase in the [debt] limit” is that everybody treats this demand as a legitimate thing to ask, instead of it being something dumb as a rock.

    Nobody confronts him with the truth, which is that what a sick economy needs is not spending cuts, it needs spending increases!

    And, of course, the fault is our own. Instead of discussing these Republican threats rationally, everybody ought to be all over him for being so stupid! Why are we continuing to make John Boehner think he’s not a full-bore idiot?

    The economy is, by definition, weak because there’s not enough spending going on — and yes, because spending is contagious, we’re talking even government spending. When we spend money, we give it to somebody else who will spend it, who will we give it to somebody else who will spend it, and so on, and the economy benefits. But when we cut spending, we stop giving money to somebody else, who in turn stops giving money to somebody else, and so on, causing the economy to weaken!

    Yes, I know I sound like a broken record, but I’m just amazed that nobody else seems to be saying this!

    These Republicans — who caused S&P to lower our credit rating because they threatened to have us not pay our bills, but then blamed it on Obama’s “out-of-control spending” — seem to be dangerously ignorant about the consequences of the games they’re playing, probably because, deep down, they don’t really understand how economies work. It reminds me of the story of that little kid in the nuclear bunker who says “Hey, what’s THIS button do?”

    But I guess the good news is that the party that’s threatening to destroy America if America doesn’t agree to destroy itself, is being torn apart internally by a faction that, by threatening to launch primary challenges to any Republican who disagrees with them, seems to be doing the same thing to itself — threatening to destroy the Republican Party if the Republican Party doesn’t agree to destroy itself. Sort of like a virus too stupid to know not to kill its host.

    Which is to say, Alan — no, maybe you’re wrong. Maybe if we just have the patience to wait this out, things will get better on their own.


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