After what seems like endless weeks of obsessive Syria watching, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a break from the mysteries of the Middle East to look at an even more inscrutable place – the US Congress – to see if he can figure out its looming budgetary catastrophe. And he has promised himself to do it in a thousand words, at least after this introduction, anyway.
Until the changes that came along after Watergate to make the operations of Congress more democratic and more responsive to a new cohort of reform-minded members, pretty much whatever the speaker of the House of Representatives decided would happen, largely happened. Making use of the seniority system and his authority to decide the progress of legislation, the speaker controlled the patronage of congressional operations, decided which bills moved forward towards approval or defeat, controlled the assignments to the most powerful committees and the most prestigious opportunities to shine, undertook the most interesting fact-finding trips abroad and even oversaw the apportionment of the best office space. Legendary speakers like John Nance Garner, Sam Rayburn and John McCormack ran the House of Representatives like it was their personal fiefdom.
The upper chamber, the Senate, had less of a martial, lockstep character to it, as befits a body with only a hundred members and their six-year terms of office, but it was absolutely ruled by seniority. Either way, the US Congress – both houses of it – ran effectively, even if it was sometimes filled with furious debate over some of the country’s most divisive topics throughout the 20th century. But post-Watergate, a series of democratizing measures were passed that significantly broke up the seniority system, dramatically diminished the power of the parties’ senior leadership to control member committee assignments (and thereby inflict some measure of discipline on members) and even downgraded the leadership’s ability to fully control the calendar of the two bodies’ deliberations.
For most observers, though, things still seemed reasonably “under control” until the Democrats lost control of the House. The Republican Party, now in the majority, was also increasingly riven by a fractious split between its establishment and the new, take-no-quarter/take-no-prisoners Tea Party contingent, which stands at around 40 or so members of the 435-member chamber. This, combined with an almost visceral hatred of Barack Obama on the part of many Republicans, as well as an increasingly fractious Democratic Party (that itself was divided into a diminished mainstream establishment and a small but vociferously ideologically liberal wing, not to mention a more conservative contingent trying to maintain their seats in the face of growing Republican strength in their districts) means Congress has taken on a different character. The overall result has been what many congressional observers see as a nearly dysfunctional Congress as well as a near-poisonous relationship between the Congress and President.
These dynamics have set the stage for where things are now. When Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress back in Barack Obama’s first term, they just managed to pass the Affordable Care Act (now commonly called “Obamacare”), a major reform of health care in the US that moved the country a significant way towards universal care. However, once Republicans gained control over the House of Representatives, an article of faith for Republicans became a pledge to repeal Obamacare. With that was born the idea of using that pledge as a way to take the entire federal budget process hostage. Add the continuing fight over the debt ceiling and the looming budget sequester process to the mix and it becomes the budgetary process equivalent of that meteorological “perfect storm”. Except that it is a totally man-made one.
The whole snarl is tied up with the calendar – or overlapping calendars. The US governmental fiscal year ends on 30 September and the new one begins the next day. In theory, budgets for all government departments need to be in place or things go awry quickly as government shut down plans start to kick in. Meanwhile, the federal debt ceiling will be reached sometime in October, on a date not quite certain and dependent on the legerdemain the treasury secretary can achieve. Once that point is reached, a ceiling on the government’s new authority to borrow funds to pay for already enacted government obligations is reached and no new bills can be paid for, even if a budget has been passed. Of course, it is more complicated still because unless Congress reaches a budgetary agreement, the second wave of the sequester, automatic budget cuts passed in the previous year (especially hard-hitting for the defence budget), will eventually kick in as well.
The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, specifically speaker of the House John Boehner, thought he was beginning to figure out how to manage things to reach some sort of a temporizing budget settlement that finessed things. But then a group of some 40 Tea Party-oriented members decided their proposal to “defund” Obamacare would become Republican Party policy gospel (and thereby a real House proposal that would have to be voted for – or else). Without it, a government budget would not be passed, not even a temporary continuing resolution, authorizing interim spending at, say, the 90% level of the previous fiscal year, for a limited period of a month or two or three.
Absent a budget or a continuing resolution, the government would be shuttered. The famous national parks would be locked to tourists, the Washington Monument closed to visitors to the national capital, vital research projects at the National Institutes of Health put on hold, visas and passports not issued by the State Department, and on and on, measure after measure, irritating or inconveniencing citizens no end.
From the perspective of those ideologically committed members, this “defunding” red line could be the perfect stick in the gears of the Obama administration. It doesn’t matter that their proposal stands virtually no chance of passing in the Democratic-held Senate, or that President Obama will never, ever, sign such a measure into law, defenestrating the signature policy measure of his first term. Nor does it matter that the House has already voted numerous times on a variety of proposals to defund Obamacare and that all such votes have led exactly nowhere. Now those implacable calendars are seen as a vital ally in terminally hamstringing Barack Obama’s presidency.
Politico journalists Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan, predicting how this current situation will end eventually, wrote on Wednesday, “Speaker John Boehner will eventually have to bring a funding bill to the House floor that keeps the government – and Obamacare – running. That’s the bill the House will most likely receive from the Senate shortly after Boehner’s chamber resumes work on Wednesday, just days short of an 1 October government shutdown … The Senate will strip the language that’s meant to defund President Obama’s health care law – strong language that was drafted to appease Boehner’s right wing … Boehner and House Republicans will then be back in the spotlight. And the speaker may need the support of House Democrats to pass the measure. It won’t be pretty, but that so-called clean CR [a continuing resolution without a defunding provision] could pass the House with roughly 180 Republican votes with the remainder coming from the Democratic side of the aisle, according to senior GOP sources.” Unless, of course, still more Republican congressmen rebel against Boehner’s wavering leadership and refuse to sign on to this deal.
Sherman and Bresnahan added, “Although some Democrats are pushing to turn off the sequester as part of any CR deal, White House officials believe they can count on between 40 and 50 Democratic votes for a clean CR at the $986-billion level, giving House leaders enough to reach the key 217 vote level … [But] Republican senators Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida are … wild cards. If Lee and Cruz can persuade at least 38 of their colleagues to support a sustained filibuster [preventing the ending of debate in the Senate] of the funding bill, that would block any of Reid’s potential manoeuvres and put a shutdown within reach.”
Many of the Republicans pushing the defunding plan have insisted their opposition to Obamacare represents sincere opposition to any expansion of government programs, or they believe it to be budgetary excess in a time of government stringency. But Texas senator Ted Cruz let an ugly truth out of the bag the other day. As New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote, “Once the [Obamacare] law goes into effect, he [Cruz] told the Web site The Daily Caller, the public will be overwhelmed by its sugary sweetness – ‘hooked on the subsidies.’ It’s the duty of Congress to take it back before people can taste it, just the way New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to whisk away high-calorie Big Gulps. So, the message is clear. The new health care law is going to be terrible, wreaking havoc on American families, ruining their lives. And they are going to love it so much they will never have the self-control necessary to give it up.” Well, okay, Collins isn’t neutral on the subject, but her point makes sense. The crux of Cruz’s problem with Obamacare is that it must be stopped in its tracks before people get to love its benefits and provisions and thereby embrace it the way they have with Social Security and Medicare, allowing yet another part of the welfare state to live.
So, there we have it. As the days click by to the end of this month, some kind of grand compromise – or perhaps just a series of ugly, temporizing little ones – will have to be broached, or the government will undergo yet another shutdown like the one that ruined Speaker Newt Gingrich’s efforts to weaken President Clinton. The difficulty is that it is hard to predict in advance just whom the public blames for the idiocy and inconvenience of a shutdown. And here the President has a natural advantage, as the executive is usually best able to manipulate the closures and inconveniences for maximum political benefit.
Of course, this result, with its harsh limitations on government spending and its messages of economic and fiscal policy incoherence, could well run cross-grain to the Federal Reserve Bank’s continuing efforts at a fiscal stimulus via its policy of quantitative easing (that is, the continued purchase of government bonds to insert liquidity into the financial system). The resulting policy babble could adversely affect access to credit throughout the economy and unpredictably roil financial markets both at home and abroad. Oh, and while the Congress is wrestling with all of these weighty problems – the debt ceiling, the budget, the sequester, Obamacare – it also has to somehow find some time to deal usefully with the pending Farm Bill. Without the passage of a new farm measure, price supports for milk will fall away, perhaps doubling the cost of milk for kiddies. Even if the wreckage of the federal budget doesn’t do it, maybe that will finally get citizens really riled up. Well, it took 1,800 words instead of a 1,000 (including the introduction), but, hey, this stuff is complicated. DM
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Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) stand next to each other while escorting Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny (not pictured) down the steps of the U.S. Capitol after attending the Friends of Ireland luncheon in Washington March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.