The Speaker Of The House Impasse

Former Speaker of the House John Boehner quit the job with a tear in his eye, and for weeks House Republicans have been thrashing around, trying to find a replacement.  Political reporters have had a field day.  They’re speculating about the kinds of things pundits always speculate about — namely, what the impact of the inability to choose a replacement Speaker will be at the ballot box — without arriving at a clear answer.

Here’s the clear answer:  voters don’t care.  Seriously — we just don’t.  We’re so used to a dysfunctional Congress that an intraparty dispute about who should be the Speaker of the House really has no impact.  As a voter, you can’t help but think about how you might be affected by what Congress is doing, and leadership squabbles and political infighting have no plausible impact, period.  It may be full of nuances and backroom maneuvering that is fascinating to the punditry, but for the average Joe it’s just more background noise emanating from Washington, D.C., the capital of background noise-making.

It’s being reported today that Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Congressman who was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012, has answered appeals that he stand for Speaker by setting certain conditions in a meeting with fellow House Republicans.  According to the New York Times article linked above, Ryan said he would serve if House Republicans could unite behind him as a common force, if the “bomb throwers and hand wringers” would shut their yaps for a while, and if he could serve as a communicator and legislator rather than a peripatetic fundraiser.

Ryan says that he changed his mind about potentially serving as Speaker because he concluded that this is a dire moment for the country, with all kinds of budget issues lurking, including a fight about extending the federal debt limit — again — and an impending dispute about funding needed to avoid a governmental shutdown — again.  I’m not sure how “dire” all of this is, really, because we have seen these same issues, over and over, under Congresses and Administrations controlled by both parties.  It’s hard to conclude that the current state of affairs is any more dire than what we have seen before, where the inevitable result is a last-minute compromise that just delays the issue for a while longer.

Ryan says he thinks Congress has become the problem, and he wants it to become the solution.  Sounds good — but words are just wind.  If Ryan can really get Republicans to unite behind him, and can actually get Congress to act in a responsible way by making meaningful budget cuts, voters might actually sit up and take notice.  Until then, we’ll just ignore the stupid shenanigans and silly infighting and go on about our lives.

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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?

Be Vewy Vewy Careful

This week the Senate will be debating a bill that would require the Treasury Department to identify countries whose currencies are under valued and then in turn order the Commerce department to impose duties on imports from such countries. Countries that hold down the value of their currency do so to give their exporters an edge over their global competitors. The bill has bi-partisan support and is backed by both Republicans and Democrats. Mitt Romney is in favor of such legislation while Speaker Boehner sounds as though he is against it.

The fact that the Congress is going in this direction is worrisome. A couple of weeks ago I finished a book called The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes who is a Libertarian. Ms Shlaes book details the history of our country from the Stock Market Crash in 1928 until the late 1930’s. Her basic premise is that government intervention kept us in a Depression during that time up until our involvement in WWII.

In 1928 the Republican platform included protectionism and a bill called Smoot – Hawley made its way quickly through Congress in an effort to protect American jobs from foreign competition 9sound familiar). The bill imposed tariffs on exports from other countries who in turn imposed tariffs on our exports.

Many economists at the time warned that such legislation may do the opposite of what the bill intended and cause more job loss. The unemployment rate went from 7% the year Smoot – Hawley was passed to 25% three years later and exports dropped 61% during the same time frame.

I am in agreement with Ms Shlaes and Speaker Boehner on this one – passage of the bill being debated would give those voting for it some political cover, but if history is any indication those voting for the bill may have the look that Elmer Fudd has on his face above !

Speechifying

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.

The President’s Golf Outing, And Rules Of The Game

Today President Obama, Vice President Biden, House Speaker John Boehner, and Ohio Governor John Kasich tee off for a round of golf.  They say they will talk about deficit reduction and other political issues as they travel around the course, and also will use the round as a chance to get to know one another better.

Golf can be a good bridge-builder between people who don’t know each other very well, but it also can reveal things about your playing companions that aren’t very positive.  For example, some golfers like to bet on the game every time they play.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you do you’d better have been honest about your handicap and you’d better play by the rules.  There’s nothing worse than a sandbagger with a phony handicap who mysteriously manages to shoot a “career round” every time a bet is on the line, or a cheater who drops a ball to avoid a lost ball penalty or kicks his ball into better position.

There are other bad things to watch out for, too.  Is the guy you’ve been paired with a chatterbox, a braggart, or a bore?  Is he a slow player, or an incessant waggler?  Does he give unwanted advice about your swing?  If he is playing poorly, does he give tiresome post mortems about the surprising crappiness of his game?  Does he concede putts that reasonably should be conceded, or does he take “gimmes” that really aren’t “gimmes” at all?  If betting is involved, how does he perform when the match is on the line?  And if he does not prevail, is he a sore loser?

Golf can tell you a lot about a person whom you don’t know very well.  It would be interesting to know what perceptions get formed as a result of today’s leisurely match.

Our Gilded Congress

Congressional disclosure forms were released yesterday and they show that our elected public servants are doing very well, indeed.

The wealth in Congress knows no party-line boundaries; Republicans and Democrats alike are doing well.  According to the reports, the Minority Leader and Majority Leader in the Senate are both multimillionaires who saw their wealth rise in 2010.  So did the the Speaker of the House and the House Minority Leader.  Other Members of Congress reported on gifts they received and, in one case, a member of Congress paid herself some hefty interest on a loan she made to her own campaign committee.

There are exceptions, of course, and I am not suggesting that only paupers should be elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives.  But when Americans wonder why Members of Congress, at times, seem out of touch with bread-and-butter issues like jobs and housing prices, they might do well to reflect on the vast personal wealth in Congress and the deferential and preferential treatment our elected representatives receive as a matter of course.  It’s easy to downplay the effect of high gasoline prices or unsold homes in middle-class neighborhoods if you have millions of dollars in personal investments to reflect upon as a fellow Senator gives you a ride on her private jet.

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.