It is the end of a miserable year, but it is mercifully drawing to a close, and there’s a way to talk about such things out here in Hollywood. It’s a wrap! Strike the Washington set! But of course that’s not the end of things out here. There’s postproduction – the film editing, the sound-editing with the doors slamming or tires screeching, and the gunshots and echoes. Adding the sound of footsteps is always tricky. Then there’s adding the moody or romantic score, and color-timing, whatever that is, and there’s almost always looping involved – calling the actors back to re-record their dialog in a studio somewhere in Burbank, lip-synching themselves, because what they delivered with such devastating passion in this scene or that was unintelligible, or someone’s iPhone went off in the background, playing a bit of seventies punk rock. This end of town is filled with small postproduction houses, where the real work is done. There are no clean endings. There never are.
It was the same in the real Washington. It’s a wrap. The House passed the compromise budget, the first actual budget the federal government has had since 2009, a two-year deal that puts an end to passing a continuing resolution every six months, to keep the place open, with spending at the same level, more or less, because no one can agreed on anything. There will be no more of that for now. Now no one will be able to threaten to block any continuing resolution, which is a threat to shut down the federal government, entirely, unless they get their way. That’s what the House Republicans, and Ted Cruz and a few in the Senate, actually did this year – they blocked the last of the continuing resolutions to keep the government running, saying they would only vote to keep things running if Obama repealed the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, or then, only if Congress agreed to defund each and every part of its implementation, or then, only if its implementation was delayed a year or two, or then… something. They made good on their threat, the government was shut down for sixteen days. The economy took a twenty-four billion dollar hit, hundreds of thousands of government employees found themselves high and dry, without a paycheck, and federal contractors were devastated – and they got nothing for it, save for scorn. The Affordable Care Act was law, passed fair-and-square in 2010 and later upheld as quite constitutional by their quite conservative Supreme Court that they loved so much. They were demanding the impossible. Laws cannot be simply wiped off the books like that. That’s not how things work. It was an empty gesture.
They hadn’t thought so. They thought this would work, because it had worked once already. The last time they tried this, in late 2011, their threat to shut down the government scared the Democrats silly – they agreed to that sequester thing. The price for the Republicans agreeing to allow the government to remain in operation was brutal ten-percent cuts to everything, worthy or unworthy, useful or not. The cuts were mindless, and damaging in major ways, but the Democrats though they had no choice – and perhaps all the damage done would result in both sides realizing they really did have to talk about what is spent on what, in a more serious way. Who knew? That might work.
They were wrong, no one got any more serious about anything, and the Democrats also realized that they had had a choice all along. Let the Republicans shut down the government, just like they did in the nineties, twice, when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House. Give them nothing. The nation will turn on them then, and this time the nation did, again. Why hadn’t they thought of that?
That’s why the House passed an actual budget. The jig was up. The music stopped. This wasn’t going to work any longer. The House passed the damned budget and went home. House Republicans would have to find another tool to use.
In the House it was a wrap, and that left the Senate still stuck in Washington, arguing over the thing, but not for all that long. The Senate passed the House budget, 64 to 36, and sent it off to President Obama to be signed into law, but then there are no clean endings:
The Senate’s final passage Wednesday of a two-year, bipartisan budget plan handed the nuts-and-bolts task of funding the government to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, a mixed blessing for Republican appropriators who relish the chance to direct billions of dollars in federal money but must contend with a political right flank that is critical of government spending and eager to attack.
While the deal restores the normal budgeting process that has been off track for years, with the midterm elections approaching it presents a problem for some Republicans on the appropriations committees, who were already under fire from Tea Party-backed primary challengers simply for overseeing current spending.
The postproduction work will be done by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, and that’s the real work:
Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, has his record as a veteran appropriator under a microscope as he prepares for a primary against a challenger backed by the conservative political action committee Club for Growth.
Representative Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican running for the Senate, has had to finesse his job as the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds labor and health programs. And Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, the chairman of the energy appropriations subcommittee, is contending with one of the fiercest Tea Party-backed challenges of the 2014 election season.
Two other senior House Republican appropriators, Representatives Tom Latham of Iowa and Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, announced their retirements on Tuesday, avoiding the headache that many of their fellow committee members will face in the coming months.
This particular movie may be “in the can” now but “it sets total spending levels for only the current fiscal year ($1.012 trillion) and the next ($1.014 trillion) and does not say how the money should be spent” – so the editing and scoring and sound effects and looping still need to be done and done quickly:
The appropriations committees now have less than four weeks to produce a huge bill that funds virtually the entire government, agency by agency, program by program, before much of the government again runs out of money on Jan. 15. If they succeed, for the first time since 2012, the federal government in 2014 will be operating at the direction of Congress, not by stopgap measures that simply continue spending levels from previous years.
That will allow lawmakers to prioritize programs, eliminate others and, in some cases, insert policy provisions to guide governance next year.
That’s the real work:
The detailed budgeting will produce both practical and political issues for lawmakers who will have to vote on a phone-book-sized, trillion-dollar spending bill that they most likely will not have time to digest. In the process, small-government conservatives will force votes to strip funding from agencies that may be difficult for Republican appropriators to defend, like the National Endowment for the Arts, a perennial target back when appropriators actually held the power of the purse.
Already, appropriators with Tea Party-backed challengers have seen what is in store for them. Bryan Smith, who is challenging Mr. Simpson with the financial support of the Club for Growth, attacked Mr. Simpson for voting for the Ryan-Murray budget, which passed the House 332 to 94, and the group indicated that it fully intends to put Mr. Simpson’s appropriations record front and center in the Idaho primary contest.
Mr. Cochran, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the chairman of the panel’s defense subcommittee, is also drawing criticism from the Club for Growth and his Republican challenger, State Senator Chris McDaniel. Writing in The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth, countered defenders of Mr. Cochran who say his power on the committee has brought a wealth of help to his poor state.
“Projects in Mississippi didn’t just appear out of thin air,” Mr. Chocola wrote. “They came because Senator Cochran supported earmarks in other states, oftentimes wasteful ones.”
In short, not all that much was wrapped up, even if the Senate can now go home for Christmas too – but at least this movie, even if it isn’t in ready for theatrical release, is a movie with a happy ending. Gridlock is over. Democrats and Republicans finally agreed on something. Compromise actually happened. Happy days are here again. We now have a fully-functioning two-party system again. They talk to each other, respectfully. Things can get done. Now, things really will get done. Well, maybe not, but it’s a start, a good start.
The deal shows there are ways in which the two parties can work together – but only when they don’t have to compromise.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said so himself at the news conference announcing the agreement. “From the outset, we knew that if we forced each other to compromise a core principle we would get nowhere,” he said. “That is why we decided to focus on where the common ground is.”
That meant no taxes. It meant no changes to Medicare, Social Security, or Medicaid. It meant letting unemployment insurance expire. It meant doing nothing about crumbling infrastructure or Obamacare. It meant leaving most of sequestration in place.
And Klein is not impressed with what Ryan’s Democratic counterpart, Patty Murray, had to say:
Over the past few years, we have lurched from crisis to crisis and from one cliff to the next. And when one countdown clock was stopped, it wasn’t too long before the next one got started. That uncertainty was devastating to our fragile economic recovery. The constant crisis cost us billions of dollars in lost growth and jobs and the continued across-the-board cuts from sequestration were forcing our families and communities to pay the price.
So I am very proud to stand here today with Chairman Ryan to announce we have broken through the partisanship and the gridlock and reached a bipartisan budget compromise that will prevent a government shutdown in January.
Yes, this deal prevents a government shutdown three months after the last government shutdown. But that’s the only crisis or cliff it solves. Unemployment is still expiring for millions of long-term jobless workers. The debt ceiling still needs to be raised in the spring – and Ryan is now trying to tie it to the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The vast majority of sequestration remains in place. There’s no serious hope of progress on overhauling the tax code or reforming the immigration system or passing legislation to fight global warming.
Yeah, well, the movies we eventually see are actually created in postproduction, down the street here in one of those small anonymous-looking buildings south of Santa Monica Boulevard, not in front of the cameras on set or on location. It’s like that, and this one doesn’t have a happy ending:
Ryan and Murray struck the best deal they could without compromising on anything either side really cared about. But that just goes to show that doing anything significant requires compromise. This deal doesn’t show that Congress is finally working again. It shows that the two parties have accepted that it’s broken.
John Green documents that:
Even before President Obama signs the two-year budget deal settled on with uncharacteristic ease by Congress, Republicans have begun issuing threats about the upcoming debt-ceiling deadline and the ransom they will demand to extend the nation’s borrowing capacity. Yesterday it was Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): “Every time the president asks us to raise the debt ceiling is a good time to achieve something significant for the country.” On Sunday it was Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.): “We don’t want ‘nothing’ out of this debt limit. We’re going to decide what it is we’re going to accomplish out of this debt-limit fight.”
Republicans want something, dammit – even if they’re not sure what it is. This combination of truculent threats and vague demands inadvertently recalls the hilarious line uttered by Republican Representative Marlin Stutzman of Indiana during the October shutdown, exposing the folly of that whole enterprise. “We’re not going to be disrespected,” Stutzman told the Washington Examiner. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
We’re back to where we were before. These guys just picked up a different tool that had been lying around all along. If the hatchet doesn’t work anymore, try the sledgehammer, but Green points out that the sledgehammer might not work either:
Obama has already learned how to defeat these threats: by calling the opposition’s bluff. In 2011, Obama foolishly agreed to negotiate over the debt ceiling and got saddled with the Budget Control Act, which cut $1.5 trillion in spending, raised no new revenue, weakened demand, and slowed the recovery. The next time around, last October, he held firm and prompted the embarrassing Republican volte face that brought that shutdown/debt-ceiling scare to a close.
The truth is that nobody believed the Republican threat last time around. At a holiday reception a couple weeks ago, I asked a prominent Wall Street wealth manager if he or any of his clients had been worried about a debt-ceiling breach. He laughed. Once the Republicans folded, they’re in an even weaker position this time around. Talk to any Republican staffer or even some conservative activists and you’ll likely hear that the caucus is “fatigued” and the appetite for further showdowns has vanished.
There’s more too:
In private, at least, GOP senators appear to agree. At a background briefing this morning, one senator told the Huffington Post’s Jon Ward that “the shutdown took the stomach and leverage out of Republicans,” who had “no stomach” for a debt-ceiling fight. So if a further round of ransom demands really is the Republican Plan A for the debt ceiling, they should probably also start thinking about a Plan B.
Or they could just sit down with the Democrats and talk, and work things out. That’s the compelling hook for the movie here that just went into postproduction, which is supposed to be the feel-good movie of the year, according to all the promotional material.
Don’t believe it. This movie has its troubled characters:
Add Kentucky Republican Matt Bevin to the list of Republicans attacking House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) for lashing out last week at conservative outside groups.
Boehner earned the ire of conservative Republicans for strongly criticizing Club for Growth, Heritage Action, and FreedomWorks for opposing a two-year bipartisan budget deal introduced by Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and her House counterpart, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). In an interview with The Hill published Wednesday, Bevin, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), said that the speaker “felt that he had enough votes that he could get a little bit cocky with people.”
“And I think the smugness and arrogance with which he spoke, about some of his colleagues and the people that support his colleagues and about some of his constituents in Ohio, indicate a man that’s out of touch with the polls and with America.”
When Boehner criticized the outside groups, Bevin added, he “showed an arrogance and smugness that comes with being in office for too long.”
Troubled characters always add plot complications:
Similarly the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), which has endorsed Bevin, also attacked Boehner for his comments. An SCF email to supporters said Boehner was targeting conservatives in the same way that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative organizations applying for tax-exempt status.
Feel-good movies aren’t supposed to have angry paranoid characters who lash out, and, as Francine Kiefer explains, no one was very happy about what just happened:
Attempt to tamper with Americans’ Social Security benefits, and lawmakers risk touching the highly charged “third rail” of politics. Try that with the military, and they face a firing squad.
On Wednesday, as expected, the Senate passed the bipartisan budget deal unveiled last week, 64 to 36. But the past two days have been anything but hand-holding and back slaps on the Senate floor. Instead, several lawmakers nearly resorted to pistols drawn at 20 paces over a provision in the bipartisan budget deal that reduces military retirement benefits by $6 billion over 10 years.
To the lawmakers who crafted the deal, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, it seemed like a fairly painless cut. The people it targets – those who retired from the military after 20 years of service, but who are still of working age (under age 62) – often go on to other jobs. The budget deal, passed overwhelmingly by the House last week, reduces cost-of-living adjustments for these younger retirees by 1 percent.
But that 1 percent figure touched a trip wire in the Senate.
All hell broke loose:
Several Republicans deplored the cost-of-living cut as “appalling.” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire said the provision was a “deal breaker.” She wasn’t the only one urging a “no” vote on the budget agreement that averts a government shutdown and that – military hawks take note – increases the military budget by $31 billion. …
This week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina was particularly passionate. “Of all the groups in America you would go to and single out [for cuts] …we picked the military community,” he said Tuesday. Do you know how much a master sergeant with 20-years-experience makes in retirement? he asked. Answer: less than $25,000 a year. The cut in cost of living (COLA) is the equivalent of giving up three years of retirement pay, he said.
“These are the people who have been serving continuously since 9/11 … and this COLA reduction doesn’t just apply to people who are retired and in good shape,” continued the man with eight military bases in his state. “Someone who has had their legs blown off in Afghanistan or Iraq, and most likely will not be able to get a second job, is going to lose thousands of dollars in this cost-of-living adjustment and nobody else in the country is so situated.”
Kiefer goes on to cover all the back-and-forth. It wasn’t pretty, even if John McCain, of all people, supports this pension cut, but it doesn’t matter. The House passed the budget as is, and then the Senate did and sent it to Obama, who signed this budget into law. The military pension thing can be fixed in postproduction, like everything else. Perhaps some looping will be necessary.
So the political year ended. It’s a wrap! Strike the Washington set! Now the real work begins.