Getting Out Of The Way

To the astonishment of many, Republicans in Congress did not make much of a fuss about raising the debt ceiling this past week. The leadership in the House let a “clean” bill — i.e., one that dealt solely with the debt limit — come to the floor, where it passed. In the Senate, Republicans cooperated in allowing the debt increase to be addressed by majority vote, rather than requiring a 60-vote threshold.

I’m not surprised. Many people are saying that House Speaker John Boehner is in trouble with conservative members of the Republican caucus for not insisting that the debt ceiling increase be coupled with debt reduction measures or other initiatives that are near and dear to tea party hearts — but I think, deep down, even conservative politicians are still politicians. And politicians know that one of the oldest rules in politics is that if your opponent is struggling and dropping in the polls, you don’t do anything that might interfere with that process.

The reality is that President Obama is struggling right now. Every week brings bad news for him — about problems with the Affordable Care Act, about his liberal and increasingly criticized use of executive orders rather than following the legislative process, about domestic spying, and about countless other foreign and domestic issues. The Real Clear Politics average of polling data shows the clear negative trend in presidential approval ratings. Why would Republicans want to pick a fight over the debt ceiling increase, threaten another governmental shutdown, and risk inviting that they receive some of the voter disapproval that is now being directed at the President?

Treadmill Promises

You notice that the clothing is fitting a bit snugly.  The waistline has expanded beyond what you find acceptable, and your face has begun to take on a fleshy, jowly appearance.  Then one night, as you snack on chips and watch some late-night TV, you see a commercial for a treadmill, complete with happy, fit people wearing tight exercise clothing jogging, then laughing as they go on a date with an attractive person of the opposite sex.

You’ve tried to do exercise programs before, you recognize, but you think that perhaps things will be different if you actually buy a treadmill.   You reason that, if you actually pay money for an exercise device, you’ll be much more likely to follow through on your exercise promises because you won’t want to utterly waste your hard-earned money.  The treadmill, you conclude, could be the linchpin of a drive to create a new, fitter you.

So you brush the chip shards off your belly, call the number on the commercial, and place your order.  The treadmill comes, all sleek and shiny, and your resolution increases.  This will be the beginning!  You put it in your bedroom, read the instructions, and don the new exercise outfit you bought for the occasion.  It’s treadmill time!  You walk a few miles on that rubbery, rotating surface, feeling good about yourself, and then have a green salad for dinner.  Already, you feel lighter.  The next morning you feel sore, but it’s a good soreness.  You do the treadmill that day, and the next.

Maybe you eat some more salad.  The soreness increases.  Then you think that it’s kind of boring just walking on a treadmill, so you move a TV in front of the treadmill.  And then one day you miss a day, because you overslept or you were hung over from going out with your friends.  It just couldn’t be helped.  You promise to redouble your efforts, and for a while you’re back on track.  Then you miss another day, and another.

Weeks later, you realize that the treadmill is now being used exclusively as an adjunct clothes rack, and every time you see the damn thing you smell the reek of personal failure.  At first you think the guilt feelings might get you back to your brief fitness regimen, but after a while you’re sick of looking at the stupid treadmill, so you sell it in a garage sale or on eBay.  And then, months later, you see a new fat-burning device on TV, and you think that it might just be the key to a newer, better you.

I’m reminded of treadmill promises when I read about the President and Congress reaching agreement on another last-minute, short-term, stop-gap spending and debt limit bill and suggesting that things will be different when the next deadline nears.

Time For Another Crisis!

It’s been at least two weeks since the impending “fiscal cliff” disaster was avoided at the last minute.  That means it’s time for our grossly dysfunctional, leaderless government to stumble into crisis mode, again.

This time, the deadlines are in March and April, and one of the key issues is the debt limit.  The debt limit now stands at $16.4 trillion — that $16,400,000,000,000 — but that staggering sum is not enough for our debt-ridden, spending-obsessed, deficit spending-addicted country.  At a press conference yesterday, President Obama said Republicans should just raise the debt limit, without insisting on spending cuts.  We’re not a “deadbeat nation,” he said, and the full faith and credit of the United States should not be a “bargaining chip.”  If agreement on raising the debt ceiling can’t be reached, he says, Social Security and veterans checks might be delayed.

It seems awfully early in the game to play the Social Security card and scare seniors and veterans.  Unfortunately, they aren’t the only ones who are frightened by another crisis brewing.  This morning, global markets are stalling due to concerns about the debt limit, and the ratings agency Fitch says if the debt ceiling issue isn’t resolved promptly America’s credit rating could drop.

At his press conference, the President said he was willing to talk about spending cuts to stabilize the debt, but that such spending cuts should be discussed separately.  We’ve heard that song before, but cuts never get made, programs never get eliminated, and trillion-dollar deficits go on and on.  For all of his talk, talk, talk, the President has shown no willingness to take the courageous spending reduction steps that truly are needed to get our debt problems under control.  Like Wimpy, the President would rather promise to pay us Tuesday for buying him that hamburger today.  After four years, however, the bill hasn’t been paid, and there is no sign it will be paid.

I think Republicans have concluded that, deep down, President Obama would be perfectly comfortable to let the spending and big deficits continue until he leaves office, and that is exactly what will happen if he isn’t forced to sit down at the table and bargain.  If the Republicans see the debt ceiling as a fail-safe means of forcing some hard negotiations with the President that produce real progress on federal spending and the deficit, the President has only himself to blame.

Lobbyist Heaven — And Lobbyist Hell

Here’s an interesting side-effect of the debt ceiling compromise:  the 12 members of Congress appointed to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction charged with coming up with a plan to wring $1.5 trillion in savings out of the federal budget will be extraordinarily inviting targets for intense, all-out lobbying.

This should not surprise anyone.  Even by Washington standards, $1.5 trillion is a lot of money.  AARP, farming interests, NPR, corporations, hospitals, colleges, state and local governments, and all of the various special interests who could lose part of their federal funding or their special tax breaks will be willing to do whatever it takes to protect their turf and make sure the cuts come out of somebody else’s hide.  Lobbyists who have good relationships with any of the Joint Select Committee members will be in high demand.  Lobbyists who don’t will be sucking wind.  And for the special interests, it’s not a bad deal — instead of having to lobby 535 Senators and Representatives for years at a time, they only need to influence the decisions of 12 people who must submit their recommendation within a few months.

So, every lobbyist on K Street will be keenly interested in who gets appointed to the Committee.  Let’s hope that Congress takes steps to ensure that whoever is selected to serve on this stunningly powerful, temporary entity doesn’t have the opportunity to capitalize on their status by having constant fundraisers between now and the date the Joint Select Committee’s recommendation is due.  The “Divine Dozen” are being entrusted with enormous responsibility.  They should all pledge not to seek any campaign contributions, fund-raising support, or any other form of benefit during their term of service on the Joint Select Committee.  The Committee’s recommendation will be controversial enough without people wondering if a few well-placed contributions influenced its decision-making.

Debt Ceiling Phrases That Really Irritate Me And Should Now Be Tossed Into The Dustbin Of History

I’m glad the debt ceiling “debate” is over, and not just because it was an embarrassment for all concerned.  Equally important, it was becoming intolerable to listen to the news because the repetitive sound bites just set my teeth on edge.

It’s bad enough that our elected representatives are so hapless, but what is really unbearable is their leaden insistence on repeating the same tired talking points with the same limp and irksome phrases.  Aren’t there any politicians who are deft in the use of metaphor and analogy?  I know we don’t have any Lincolns and Churchills, but is it too much to ask for some linguistic creativity and variety from our uninspiring political leaders?

Here are some phrases that have really gotten under my skin:

*  “Kick the can down the road”

*  “Double down”

*  “Balanced approach”

* “Turning around an aircraft carrier”

*  “Banana Republic”

I’m open to suggestions of additional phrases, of course.  From here on, anyone caught using any of these offending phrases will be sentenced to a week of non-stop viewing of C-SPAN coverage of the House of Representatives.

Winners And Losers And General George Patton

As President Obama and congressional leaders work feverishly to negotiate an end to the debt ceiling impasse, I am sure most Americans are keeping our fingers crossed that the parties reach a meaningful agreement that allows the country to avoid a ruinous default and credit rating downgrade.

If a deal is struck, news media pundits will promptly declare who came out a “winner” and who came out a “loser” in this torturous process.  They may contend that President Obama was a loser because his call for increased taxes as part of a “balanced” approach was unsuccessful.  They may argue that the Republicans were losers because they were maneuvered into a last-second backroom deal that doesn’t make enough spending cuts.  Or perhaps the mantra will be that Harry Reid and Senate Democrats were marginalized during the final hours, or that “Tea Party” Republicans looked too uncompromising and unrealistic, or that progressives in Congress have lost their clout as the debate focuses totally on spending cuts.

The insistence on declaring triumphal winners and abject losers, with no middle ground, may be one reason why it has become so difficult for Washington to reach agreements.  No one wants to be a “loser” because they know that General George Patton was right:  Americans celebrate winners and despise losers.  In this case, however, it’s hard to see how anyone comes out of this ridiculous process covered with glory.  Our political leaders have failed to govern responsibly for so long, irrespective of which party has been in power, that there should be plenty of “loser” status to go around.

Update:  As predicted (except this writer finds a lot of “winners” in the process).

401(k) Follies

Many of us have tried to save and plan for retirement.  We’ve read the books about how investing in mutual funds is one of the best ways to maximize your return and grow your nest egg over the long term.  We’ve followed that advice, and many of us have stayed the course, through up years and down, trusting in the historical fact that the stock market will produce long-term gains that outstrip every other investment vehicle.

As I sit here tonight, amazed that President Obama and congressional leaders have taken us to the brink of apparent default, I wonder:  If the debt ceiling is not increased, if the United States defaults, and if ratings agencies downgrade the investment value of United States government securities — with the likely negative ripple effect of those developments throughout the economy — does anyone doubt that the stock market will plunge and our carefully considered long-term investments are going to take a huge, unnecessary hit?  And if that inevitable hit occurs, how long will it take for our retirement funds to recover from it — if ever?

I think the dumb brinksmanship we are seeing from every one of our political leaders right now is infuriating, but I cannot imagine how angered I would feel if I were on the eve of retirement and saw those leaders taking absurd risks with the value of my hard-earned, soon-to-be-needed retirement nest egg.  It’s one thing to believe that our elected representatives are unconcerned about the average schmoe, it’s quite another to see that they are gambling with your money and your future solely to further their partisan political positions.

Our Cowardly Senate

Tonight all of the debt ceiling drama is in the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner is hoping to round up enough bills to pass his proposal to increase the debt ceiling and avoid a default.

Meanwhile, what’s happening in the Senate?  Nothing.  The house that likes to call itself “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” has become the World’s Greatest Do-Nothing Body.  They wait, criticize the House of Representatives, try to dodge any responsibility or avoid taking any position that might cause them any kind of political pain, and spend their time pondering political maneuvering at the expense of the good of the country.  Although my inclinations are to favor budget-cutting to get us to fiscal sanity, I think you would be as disappointed in the performance of the majority-Democrat Senate if you were a hard-core progressive.  Why haven’t they independently debated and passed the Senate solution to the problem?  Because they don’t want to commit to anything.

Who knows what will happen with the Boehner plan, or whether our fractured, grossly dysfunctional and leaderless government will allow our country to suffer a needless, ruinous, and impoverishing default.  One thing is clear, however:  it is hard to imagine a more gutless, craven performance than we have seen from the Senate during this entire debt ceiling issue.  They have been a pathetic embarrassment to the concept of responsible representative government.


The debt ceiling remains unraised.  Talks between the sides have broken down.  The Republicans in the House have submitted a proposal, and the Democrats in the Senate have done likewise.  All the while, the days before the August 2 deadline slip silently past.

So, what to do to try to end this apparent impasse?  Why, give a speech, of course!  President Obama will address the nation at 9 p.m. tonight to discuss the debt ceiling issue, and Speaker of the House John Boehner will present the Republican view immediately thereafter.

I’m all in favor of a good speech, but what is giving a speech a few days before an important deadline supposed to accomplish?  It’s an opportunity for each side to trot out their spinmeisters, of course, but aren’t we awfully far down the road for that?  Is highlighting the parties’ differing positions supposed to reassure the jittery markets?  Are the members of Congress supposed to focus on the polling numbers after the speech to decide how to vote on this issue?  If the numbers say Americans liked the President’s speech better than the Speaker’s, or vice versa, does that carry the day?

This all seems like political posturing to me, as each side tries to set the other up to take the blame, rather than a legitimate effort to bring an end to what has often been a pathetic and embarrassing process.

Not Distracted By The Debt Ceiling Fan Dance

A week has gone by, the August 2 default deadline creeps ever nearer, and still the antic debt ceiling political dance continues. 

It’s like an old fan dance, where the flashing fans of the dancer seek to tantalize while hiding what lies beneath.  The Senate has contributed the ill-defined “Gang of Six” proposal.  The House Republicans passed “cut, cap, and balance.”  President Obama continues to insist on a “balanced approach.”  Everybody uses every opportunity to trumpet that everybody else is behaving abominably and making outrageous proposals.  And the latest report is that the President is sitting down with House Republicans to try to cut a deal

Is real progress being made?  Who knows?  Appallingly, everything is done behind closed doors, with no public input.  How can anyone be comfortable with politicians making deals in private on this huge issue?  And most of the purported “savings” and “cuts” and “revenue enhancements” seem to be vague, generic promises to delegate the task of making actual changes to the same congressional committees that have, for years, proven themselves unable to restrain spending, exercise prudence, and govern responsibly.

I’m not going to be distracted by the waving fans.  I want this embarrassing dance to produce some real changes to how things are done.

The Debt Limit Merry-Go-Round

The talks between Republicans and Democrats about raising our national debt limit are frustrating to follow.  It’s like a merry-go-round.  The people go round and round and there appears to be activity, but nothing ever goes anywhere.  All the while, the August 2 deadline — after which the United States will default, according to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner — looms ever closer.

House Republicans have passed a budget that was rejected by President Obama and Senate Democrats.  The Republicans say any increase in the debt limit must be matched by actual cuts in current and future spending and have insisted that tax increases cannot be part of any resolution.  Senate Democrats haven’t passed a budget in years, but have floated a proposal that has not been the subject of public hearing or debate.  President Obama has gone from proposing a budget at the start of the year that did nothing to reduce annual deficits, to proposing a budget framework that was so nebulous it could not even be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, to now taking the Republicans to task for not agreeing to compromise on tax increases.

Talks are occurring, behind closed doors, between the principals — a result that should cause good government advocates everywhere to shake their heads in dismay.  Republicans say President Obama stalked out of the talks last night; Democrats say the President left because he was rudely interrupted by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.  Posturing is running rampant on all sides.

In the meantime, Moody’s has announced that it is placing the U.S. under review for a rating downgrade.  Imagine!  U.S. government bonds and notes, for years viewed as the safest possible investment, may lose that designation because our political leaders cannot reach an agreement.  Any rational person  understands that if any default or serious uncertainty occurs, the interest rate on future U.S. borrowing will increase as investors demand an increased return for the increased investment risk — as investors inevitably and understandably do — and that result will just make our debt burden that much heavier and the ability to bring the budget into balance that much more difficult.

It’s time for our leaders to put aside the politics and put the national interest first.  It appears that Republicans would agree to a short-term deal that would make cuts proposed by the President’s own Debt Commission and raise the debt ceiling by the same amount, to allow additional time for negotiations on a broader solution.  That is what the parties should do.  The President, having waited until the eleventh hour to engage, can’t reasonably insist on a long-term deal and risk a default as a result.  And while Democrats may complain, they have only themselves to blame — they could have raised the debt ceiling last year, when they controlled both Houses of Congress and the White House, but they failed to do so.

The bottom line is, we shouldn’t be playing chicken with our national credit or investor confidence in U.S. securities.


The Republic Is Saved!

A budget deal has been struck (at the last minute, of course)!   So today, the federal government is open for business!  History has been made!  The National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade can go forward!  The Republic is saved!

From the self-congratulatory tone of some the public statements of the participants, you’d think our elected representatives had discovered a cure for cancer, rather than just belatedly completed a job that should have been done last year.  I’m glad that the ludicrous spectacle of a federal government shutdown was avoided, but forgive me if I don’t join in the hosannas for President Obama, Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Republicans and Democrats in Congress.  If progress can be made on reducing spending, shoring up revenue, balancing the budget, and eliminating our federal debt only by incremental steps, after weeks of invective and name-calling, when everyone’s back is to the wall, we are in for a long period of ugly contentiousness.

Now, on to the next last-minute, bruising battle, about raising the national debt limit.