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?

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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.