Giving Thanks For Our Political Leaders

This Thanksgiving week, I’d like to give special thanks for our political leaders.  At this time of national challenge, we are blessed with a political class whose spirit of self-sacrifice, personal courage, and intestinal fortitude compare favorably to those of our Pilgrim Fathers and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.

I’m thankful for politicians who haven’t let the need to reassure nervous financial markets or the selfish concerns of Americans whose retirement savings accounts will be depleted by wild stock market plunges distract them from their crucial campaigning and fundraising.

I’m thankful for the President and Members of Congress who wisely decided to discard old-fashioned political processes and delegate all deficit reduction efforts to a “supercommittee.”

I’m thankful for the members of the “supercommittee” who rolled up their sleeves and had a few meetings and hearings before calling it quits.

I’m thankful for the far-sighted Democrats and Republicans who had the courage to accept a decrease in our national credit rating in order to stand up to the unreasonable expectations of the ratings agencies.

I’m thankful for the Members of Congress whose intuitive understanding of economics is so great that they have been able to increase their personal fortunes while serving the public good.

I’m thankful for a bold President who recognizes that the most crucial question to be answered when addressing any important issue is how to ensure that others will be held strictly accountable for the ultimate failure.

I’m thankful for those perceptive Democrats and Republicans who have finally come to realize that most Americans want to shrug off the weighty mantle of global leadership and be more like Greece.

Finally, I’m thankful for those enlightened political leaders who recognize that every single federal program, every single federal job, and every single federal tax exemption, deduction, and loophole is absolutely essential to the future of our Republic and cannot possibly be eliminated or changed in any way.

With leaders such as these, is there any doubt that our great nation can squarely meet and overcome whatever challenges might confront us?  The turkey is going to taste especially good this year.

Anticipating Supercommittee Failure

The news about the debt supercommittee — the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — is not good. According to the Washington Post, the supercommittee members have gone on the Sunday talk shows to effectively concede they won’t succeed and to begin to prepare for the impending failure.

We can expect that each side will blame the other.  Congress might not be able to make hard decisions, but they are peerless in shirking responsibility for failure.  Even more sad, yet predictable, Congress also is talking about deactivating the automatic spending cuts that were supposed to make a grand compromise more likely.  If they do that, of course, the entire supercommittee charade will be exposed as a silly sham that has done nothing except demonstrate that our leaders lack the discipline and the will to make tough choices — even when the grim example of countless debt-ridden Eurozone countries shows clearly what ultimately will happen if our constant deficit spending habits are not curbed.

We are seeing an amazing lack of leadership in Washington, D.C., from the President on down.  Hang on to your hats tomorrow; if the financial markets get the idea that the supercommittee will fail and that no cuts of any kind will be made, we may be in for a serious stock market meltdown.

Optimism, Pessimism, And Coin Flips

Although Congress has been enjoying its August recess, the staffs of the members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — the so-called “Super Committee” — have been hard at work.  The Committee itself will begin meeting soon.  So, what’s the prognosis for whether the Super Committee can get the deficit reduction job done?

If you have a coin, flip it — because you can find just about every opinion on this topic, from foolish optimism to bleak pessimism, if you look hard enough.  Some people think the structure of the Super Committee and the ability to send any plan that gets majority support directly to the House and Senate floors means that the Super Committee is likely to succeed, whereas others predict, with equal confidence, that the Super Committee will fail.

What’s interesting, and discouraging, about the spectrum of opinions is that they all seem to be based on the kind of “inside baseball” political analysis that most of us find bizarre and infuriating.  No one seems to think that the members of the Super Committee will come to the table ready to reach a significant deal that achieves honest, meaningful deficit reduction because America needs that result.  Even the optimists apparently think that, if a deal is reached, it will be because Republicans and Democrats will conclude that a deal is the best result for Republicans and Democrats, and not because that result is best for the country.

Have we reached the point where our politicians can never lay aside partisanship and recognize that, if they don’t take effective action soon, this country will be brought to its knees?  I think that terrible reality may be the case — which is why I am in the pessimists’ camp on the likely outcome of the Super Committee and its deliberations.

Lobbyist Heaven — And Lobbyist Hell (II)

When the idea of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was raised, I expressed the hope that Congress would take steps to ensure that the people who served on the “Super Committee” did not trade on their membership for fundraising purposes.

Alas, my hopes were promptly dashed.  According to Roll Call, about two hours after Representative Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat, was named to the “Super Committee,” emailed invitations to a fundraiser touted his appointment and asked attendees to make a “suggested contribution” of $1,500 to “Becerra for Congress.”  The email pointedly states: “This will be Mr. Becerra’s first event since being named to the commission and may be one of the first for any of the twelve members of the group,” and adds, “This event could give all attendees a glimpse into what will most assuredly be the primary topic of discussion between now and the end of the year.”

Becerra says he did not know about the solicitation.  “I did not know, did not ask, would not ask and I will not ask any of my supporters to use my appointment to the select committee for purposes outside its principle [sic] focus,” the Roll Call article quotes him as saying. “That’s my position today and that’s what my position will be for my tenure on the committee.”

Let’s take Representative Becerra at his word.  Isn’t the real problem, though, that in our current system flunkies and cronies and lobbyists can do the wink-wink/nudge-nudge messaging for the candidate, who stays above the unseemly touting?  Incidentally, the Roll Call article reports that the fundraiser is going forward, despite the controversy about the email and invitation linking Becerra’s service with a suggested contribution to his campaign.  I wonder how many $1,500 checks will be made out to “Becerra for Congress”?

The “Super Committee” And The Nixon-To-China Opening

The 12 members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction have been appointed.  Six Republicans, six Democrats; six Senators, six Representatives.  This so-called “Super Committee” will now see whether it can reach agreement on a plan to reduce deficits by at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years.  If they can’t, cuts to defense spending and discretionary programs will take effect.  If they can, their proposal goes directly to the House and Senate floors for up or down votes.

Predictably, each side is criticizing the other side’s choices as political hacks, zealots, empty suits, or outright nuts.  And each side also is expressing concern about their own side’s selections.  Will they stand up to the pressure, or cave in and sacrifice the party’s principles?  Only one person need break ranks to join the other side on a compromise proposal.

From my perspective, the Democratic and Republican selections appear to be predictable, safe, controlled choices who are true to their parties’ principles.  Obviously, they all enjoy credibility with the party leadership, and my guess is that they have similar credibility with the vast majority of the members of their respective caucuses.

This may make reaching an agreement more difficult, but I also wonder whether these selections don’t also allow a possible Nixon-to-China moment.  When President Nixon visited China as part of a diplomatic initiative to open relations with that nation, many noted that Nixon was one of the few people who could do so without being criticized as a communist sympathizer or squishy on national defense.  If a long-time, staunch anti-Communist like Tricky Dick thought opening relations with China and shaking hands with Mao Zedong was a good idea, who could be heard to complain?

Perhaps the reputations of the Super Committee members as stalwart defenders of their parties’ positions on spending and taxes similarly will make any compromise they may reach more saleable in the House and Senate.  If partisans as diverse as Patty Murray and Pat Toomey, Jeb Hensarling and James Clyburn, could possibly find common ground, wouldn’t that provide some cover for others to support the deal?

One Program At A Time

One other point about the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.  I am afraid that the impending specter of that committee will cause Congress to stop doing its job (to the extent that Congress has been doing its job) and simply wait to see what the Joint Select Committee comes up with.

I hope the Republicans in the House of Representatives, at least, reject that do-nothing approach and put their money where their mouth is.  They’ve talked bravely about cutting federal spending.  I hope that they move forward and cause the House of Representatives to do what Congress is supposed to do:  hold hearings, take testimony, and make legislative decisions through the proposal and amendment of bills, one program and one agency at a time.  One of the problems with the debt ceiling compromise is that it locks in already inflated spending and programs that we may not be able to afford during this time of huge deficits.  I would rather see targeted, carefully considered cuts, arrived at transparently in committee meetings held after open hearings, than some kind of blunderbuss, across-the-board approach that affects all programs equally.

Let’s see the House Republicans play some “small ball” and decide whether, for example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration programs for funding advertising campaigns against drunk driving and in favor of seat belt use should continue to be funded.  I’d rather we eliminated entire non-essential programs that Congress decides we can’t afford in the current budget climate, with the corresponding reduction in the federal payroll, than see programs that help the truly disadvantaged or fund crucial defense efforts suffer unthinking reductions.

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.