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‘High Noon’ in DC: Obama and GOP gunslingers live to fight another day

‘High Noon’ in DC: Obama and GOP gunslingers live to fight another day

In the end, as the Obama administration and House of Representatives Republicans stuttered to a snarling compromise cutting just under $40 billion from the US government budget, they put off disputes about tax levels and parts of the Tea Party social agenda – but also postponed the further reckoning down the road.  By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

All this came just before the US government was about to be driven into shutdown mode. In the weekend that followed, the two sides have been arguing over who blinked first, who wimped out the most and gearing themselves for the next battles: Congressional action that must deal with the federal government’s debt ceiling.

And now will come the preliminary feinting over the 2012 budget that will bleed right into the election campaign. And along the way, the Republican Party will have to figure out its real relationship with the Tea Party-ers in its midst.

The threatened government shutdown sometimes looked like a mix of that climactic battle between Godzilla and Mothra biting, clawing and thrashing each other around in the ruins of Tokyo;  plus Gary Cooper, standing tall as he faced down the Miller Gang in “High Noon” with that ominous ticking clock; along with the automotive “chicken” race from the James Dean classic “Rebel Without a Cause”; along with a dash of one of those great over-the-top theatrical sword fights from a fully staged Kabuki drama – all swooshing and whooshing costumes and colours – but no blood. Or, just maybe, somewhere in this struggle there was – and still is – a battle about two rather different ideas about government.

To outside observers, this real-life Washington drama also drew metaphorical energy and texture from those near-obligatory scenes of triple shot-espresso-with wings-fuelled, behind-closed-doors late nights of frantic negotiations we’ve come to expect on “West Wing”. Of course, that shouldn’t be particularly surprising – so many of the programme’s script advisors came with first-hand experiences in the Clinton administration’s own battles with Congress – including two government shutdowns. Witnesses to the last minute negotiations in the White House told New York Times reporters: “At one crucial moment in the game of chicken over a looming shutdown of the US government, President Obama and the House speaker, John Boehner, faced off in the Oval Office. Mr. Boehner, a Republican heavily outnumbered in the room by Democrats, was demanding a provision to restrict financing to Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions. Mr. Obama would not budge. ‘Nope. Zero’, the president said to the speaker. Mr. Boehner tried again. ‘Nope. Zero’. Mr. Obama repeated. “John, this is it.” A long silence followed, said one participant in the meeting. ‘It was just like an awkward, ‘O.K., well, what do you do now?’ ”

In the final day of negotiations, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with the Obama administration, had been trying to reach some sort of compromise that could keep the US government ticking over, paying its bills and its employees. By Friday afternoon, they were only about $7 billion apart (real money to the rest of us, but chicken feed to the entire US federal government), but also a whole bunch of subsidiary provisions about whether or not to fund things such as Planned Parenthood or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, all those lightning rods left over from the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 90s.

As the hours ticked by, at least 800,000 US civil servants were wondering if it was time to turn in their BlackBerries, stay at home and not even attempt to work, even as they fretted about how their own bills would be paid – if they weren’t getting their salaries.

Simultaneously, millions of citizens were trying to puzzle out whether the hundreds of different government programmes they depended on would be in operation come Monday morning. While the military, customs and immigration officers, air traffic controllers and other essential employees would still be at work, regardless of what happened on Friday, administration officials were already letting it be known that government employees’ pay would be late, at best, even if they were on duty over Libya, at the Mexican border or in the nation’s aircraft control towers.

Photo: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (C) along with Republican leaders like Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) (2nd R) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), makes remarks to the media on Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, April 8, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Theiler.

Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, were left to worry if they should cancel Easter-break visits to national parks (the park rangers would be on furlough because of a shutdown) or if they should still go to Washington for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival on 9 April and a quick spin around the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. While this wasn’t the biggest issue by any means, it was no laughing matter for lots of ordinary people, and it ran the risk the Republicans would get the blame for their insistence on cutting the budget (or the Democrats for their unwillingness to cooperate in finally reining in government spending).

The parade’s managers are civil servants, the museum guards are government employees, the police that patrol it are employees of the City of Washington (and in effect federal civil servants) who would be enjoined from overtime work, and many of the hundreds of people involved in making the pageant happen also work for the government. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come to Washington for the parade and to enjoy all those cherry trees in full bloom around Washington’s museums and monuments.

A shutdown could be a crisis for anyone expecting the usual run of government services, as well as smaller personal calamities for the members of all those high school bands across the country who were about to embark on their first trips to the nation’s capital. As a result, one could see the Obama administration gearing up to make poster children for Republican mean-spiritedness out of all those disappointed tourists, retirees waiting in vain for a medical appointment paid by Medicare or the poor students waiting for their student loans to be processed. Republicans, meanwhile, had their own poster children in waiting – all those future generations impoverished by all that Democratic spending without restraint.

This kind of American governmental budget battle occurs because the American Constitution divided authority for government budgets between the president and Congress. The executive manages and administers the government and is responsible for proposing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year (American fiscal years run from 1 October to 30 September); but Congress – and most especially the House of Representatives – must vote on all appropriations before the president’s budget or its amended version is passed and signed into law. Because the US is not a parliamentary democracy, the possibility of confrontation and dispute or much worse is inherent in the system.

Of course, at one level, this whole snarl-up could be ended after a couple of votes in Congress and a presidential signature that continued government operations at 85% of last year’s levels, until such time as a final compromise could be reached between the Republicans and Democrats down the road a bit. This is the way it has frequently happened until the governmental “mud-wrestling” over spending is finally resolved. The previous year, of course, the Congress never actually managed to pass a government budget before the fiscal year ended, even though the Democrats ostensibly controlled both houses of Congress. Conservative Democrats lined up with Republicans on a variety of issues to foreclose final budget votes. As a result, these continuing resolutions were the only budget bills actually passed.

But when the Republican Party crashed through the electoral barrier last year to become the majority party in the House of Representatives, to a considerable degree it did so on the back of Tea Party energy and distain for many of the federal government’s varied programmes. In addition, they had their full-throttle fear of the growing overall government debt and yearly deficit to goad them. As the Republicans took control of the lower house of Congress, they rallied to the idea of cutting $100 billion out of the federal budget.

By the end of 2010, the Obama administration, feeling the pressure from its mid-term electoral “shellacking”, had responded with proposals that would make real cuts in defence spending (despite Iraq, Afghanistan – and now Libya) and an overall cut of more than $30 billion out of federal spending – in response to the Republicans’ insistence on a $100 billion cut, later scaled down to at least $66 billion for the 2011 budget.

Charging the atmosphere still further, a bipartisan panel under Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson (a Clinton administration official and a former Republican senator), appointed by Obama, had issued a roadmap for federal budgetary reform. The commission’s proposed changes for the funding of the non-discretionary, entitlement spending for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – in addition to a large range of cuts in other programmes. The big entitlement spending, plus defence and debt interest are fully 85% of the total federal spend.

While neither party endorsed the commission’s recommendations because of the politically sensitive nature of even trying to change Social Security and Medicare (the elderly are a particularly potent political force and they vote at much higher rates than the rest of the public), conservative Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the new chairman of the appropriations committee of the House of Representatives then proposed a comprehensive budget plan that would also make major changes in the way those entitlement programmes would be managed, as well as offering lower funding levels for a whole host of other federal programmes. While many of his proposed changes are politically controversial and even actuarially troublesome, Ryan’s plan also precludes tax increases, thereby forcing the spending cuts. But the chance Republicans and Democrats will easily reach agreement for this year’s budget as well as deal with the budget deficit has essentially come to grief over two issues beyond actual spending: Taxes and issues left over from the culture war near and dear to the Tea Party-ers.

The core of the Obama administration’s budgetary programme had been to keep in place a Bush administration increase in taxes for the wealthy, but lower them for the rest, thereby helping drive the economic recovery as the added available income helped kick-start demand in the country. The wealthy tend to save tax cuts while the rest tend to spend tax savings. However, because the Ryan plan would significantly lower taxes on the wealthy and on businesses, it would essentially make it impossible to balance the federal budget unless spending was cut drastically. For Ryan and the conservative Tea Party-ers, tax cuts become the lever to force down spending.

But the Ryan proposals, and those of other conservatives, also pick out a variety of social programmes and prohibit spending on them. This would include key elements in the foreign assistance programme, Planned Parenthood clinics that provide a variety of women’s health services on federal funds and abortion assistance from other funding, funding for the sometimes controversial National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that helps fund PBS TV. The latter two programmes are the special objects of conservative derision or worse. So it is here in the drive to lower taxes and carry out a social agenda that the struggle between Obama and the Republicans over the federal budget actually comes together.

If the battle between Obama and the Republicans had halted the government at midnight on Friday, the next battle would have been over assigning blame: Are the Republicans obdurate, ideologically hidebound, cruel and unfeeling ghouls or is the Obama administration profligate, spendthrift and heedless of the citizenry’s pitiful appeals for tax relief? A few days ago, Obama told Congress to “act like adults” and come to a deal on a budget to avoid a shutdown. Obama added, “Some folks are trying to play politics about what should be a simple discussion.”

If the past is a guide, the Clinton administration ultimately carried the day 15 years earlier in a shutdown, successfully painting Republicans as the ghouls. That, in turn, energised them to defeat the Republicans under Newt Gingrich in the election of 1996. Thoughtful conservative columnists like David Brooks, Michael Gerson and Ross Douthat have been cautioning Republicans over the past several days not to overreach lest they repeat Gingrich’s act of supreme hubris. In an effort to warn conservatives, The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson, a former Bush advisor, wrote just as the budget debate was at its peak about the hundreds of thousands of TB and malaria victims around the world who wouldn’t get help from the US when America’s foreign aid spending came to a halt.

The two sides finally found the strength to achieve a temporary budget agreement, but a more comprehensive budget compromise remains elusive. The next big fight comes in a few weeks over the need to raise the federal government’s debt ceiling (i.e., the amount of money it is allowed to borrow to finance government operations). Republicans and Democrats will be back at it again over this issue unless they can find that grand compromise. The Post’s congressional correspondent, Jackie Calmes noted over the weekend: “The down-to-the-wire partisan struggle over cuts to this year’s federal budget has intensified concern in Washington, on Wall Street and among economists about the more consequential clash coming over increasing the government’s borrowing limit. Congressional Republicans are vowing that before they will agree to raise the current $14.25 trillion federal debt ceiling — a step that will become necessary in as little as five weeks — President Obama and Senate Democrats will have to agree to far deeper spending cuts for next year and beyond than those contained in the six-month budget deal agreed to late (on) Friday night that cut $38 billion and averted a government shutdown. Republicans have also signalled that they will again demand fundamental changes in policy on health care, the environment, abortion rights and more, as the price of their support for raising the debt ceiling.”

So far, while Obama seems to have been perceived as marginally more statesman-like than his opposite numbers, he has also been shown to be less powerful than before. In response to this, White House senior advisor David Plouffe told TV viewers on the round of Sunday talk shows that Obama now expects to give a speech this week to set out a stronger plan for deficit reduction – including reform of those pesky, but crucial entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid. Plouffe added Obama was “willing to work with Congress” to strengthen Social Security in the long run even as he still plans to press for higher taxes on the wealthy. Plouffe told viewers on “Meet the Press” that “people like him, as he’ll say, who’ve been very fortunate in life, have the ability to pay a little bit more” even as Obama adheres to his campaign pledge not to raise taxes on the middle-class.

Meanwhile, as Republicans have been given points for their ability to enforce a new budget-cutting urgency, their leader, Speaker of the House John Boehner, seems increasingly pinned between those hardcore tax and social policy goals of Tea Party adherents and less dogmatic mainstream attitudes and traditions and any possibility of compromise with the Obama administration. With citizen views of the competence of the Tea Party already slipping in response to this budget fight (according to the most recent polls), the Republicans run the risk of being portrayed as the political equivalent of the Grinch that stole Christmas. DM

For more, read:

  • Fight on Budget Poses Test for Two Leaders in The New York Times;
  • Obama: Progress, but no deal to avert shutdown in AP;
  • Obama says shutdown would be  “inexcusable”  in The Washington Post;
  • US budget deadlock: Obama urges lawmakers to reach deal in the BBC;
  • In budget fight, conservatives have put themselves in a corner in The Washington Post;
  • Parties fail to break US budget deadlock in the Financial Times;
  • Congress in Times of Disruption: A Historical Overview by Donald A. Ritchie, Historian of the U.S. Senate – a transcript from the Foreign Press Center in Washington
  • The real-world effects of budget cuts in The Washington Post (Michael Gerson’s column)
  • It’s Not Really About Spending in The New York Times;
  • The Ryan Journey in The New York Times (David Brooks’ column);
  • Our Cowardly Congress in The New York Times (Nicholas Kristof’s column);
  • Next on the Agenda for Washington: Fight Over Debt in The New York Times;
  • Concessions and Tension, Then a Deal in The New York Times;
  • Federal shutdown averted, but bigger battles over spending loom for Obama, Congress in The Washington Post;
  • Demonizing the GOP, losing the budget battle in The Washington Post;
  • Lessons of the budget battle – The fight on Capitol Hill wasn’t about money; it was about political power. And it needed to happen (Doyle McManus’ column) in LA Times;
  • Tea Party movement keeps up pressure despite lower profile – Republican presidential candidates will have to balance appeasing conservatives with appealing to moderate voters in The Guardian
  • Can Obama cut the budget and keep Democrats happy? in The Washington Post (Dan Balz’ column).

Main photo: President Barack Obama gestures during a phone call in the Oval Office, Feb. 17, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)


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