Split Decision

The 2018 election results were a split decision.  Democrats won enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives, yet Republicans gained at least three seats in the Senate — with a few close races yet to be determined.  The “Blue Wave” some were forecasting didn’t really materialize, but the Democratic gains mean that we’ll have at least two years of divided government, with Ds in charge of the House of Representatives, the Rs controlling the Senate, and President Trump in the White House.

Voters Across The Country Head To The Polls For The Midterm ElectionsIn Ohio, Republicans held on to the governorship and statewide offices, our Democratic Senator was reelected, and Republicans retained control of Ohio’s House of Representatives delegation.  Despite a lot of spirited contests, the overall makeup didn’t change much.  It’s notable, however, that the voter turnout in this election appears to have been significantly higher than in 2014, the last off-cycle election.  More than 4 million Ohioans cast their ballots in the governor’s race this year, compared to only about 3 million Ohioans voting for governor in 2014.  I don’t know what that works out to as a percentage of registered voters, but the increase in the raw number of voters is very encouraging.  And Ohio voters also overwhelmingly rejected a referendum to amend the state constitution to reduce sentences for drug offenders.

And speaking of constitutions, you could reasonably argue that the federal Constitution had a lot to do with the split decision that we saw from voters yesterday.  The bicameral approach that the Framers reached as a compromise has every member of the House of Representatives up for election every two years, making the House the voice of the people on the current issues of the day, whereas Senators, holding six-year terms that require only one-third of the Senate to stand for election in any two-year cycle, are supposed to be less prone to popular passions.  In short, it’s harder, and takes longer, to change the makeup of the Senate — but things might be different next time around, when more Republican seats are in play.

And the Constitution also will have something to say about what happens in the next two years, too.  With Republicans controlling the Senate, they’ll be able to provide advice and consent and confirm judicial nominees and other nominees, but since all bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives, Democrats will have the ability to thwart any tax or spending initiatives they don’t find palatable.  Each House will have the ability to conduct any investigations they deem necessary, and legislation will be approved only if the House and Senate leaders, and President Trump, can find common ground — a compromise approach that both parties can swallow.

“Common ground”?  It sounds like an almost mystical place in these days of incredibly sharp and heated political differences.  One of the more interesting things to look for over the next few years is just how much “common ground” can be found.

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Confounding Ohio

I made a promise to myself to not post anything about politics until after the election is over next week, but I’m going to make an exception of sorts tonight.

3questionmarksI ran across this New York Times article about the Ohio Democratic Party’s efforts to try to get Ohio to flip from the Republican column — to my amazement, and the amazement of many, Ohio went heavily for Donald Trump in the election — to the Democratic column.  It’s an interesting treatment of how Ohio Democrats have tried to refine and revise their message to get Ohioans to vote Democratic this time.

What’s really of interest to me, however, isn’t the inside baseball talk about how the Democrats are tried to rebuild the winning coalition they used to have in Ohio, but the clear underlying message that resonates in virtually every paragraph of the piece:  none of the politicos really know exactly how Ohioans will react this year.  Whether Democrat or Republican, the political types will do their best and present what they hope is a winning message, but come Election Day they’ll hold their breath and keep their fingers crossed that they hit the target.  Until then, in Ohio, nobody really knows.

During my years of living in Ohio, we’ve had periods where Democrats dominated at the state levels, periods where Republicans dominated, and transitional periods between those two poles.  Whenever we reach one of the poles — Democrat or Republican — somebody declares that Ohio has now moved firmly and immutably into that camp, only to find Ohioans vote for the other party the next election.  In Ohio, conventional political wisdom often turns out to be conventional foolishness.

Call me a provocateur, but I think it’s great that Ohio’s unpredictability routinely confounds the political know-it-alls on both sides.  Maybe, just maybe, they don’t really know as much as they think.

Our Ever-Ignored Deficit

The Trump Administration has announced that, in fiscal year 2018, the federal budget deficit was a staggering $779 billion.  That’s a 17 percent increase over fiscal year 2017, and the largest budget deficit in six years.

In short, we’re running enormous, historically disproportionate budget deficits — even though the economy is humming, jobs are being created, unemployment has reached the lowest levels in years, and the federal government is collecting record amounts of income tax revenue.  At a time when we should be balancing our budget, or even running a surplus, we’re farther underwater than ever.

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Nobody seems to really care about this — except a handful of old deficit hawks like me.  The Republicans who used to claim to be the party of fiscal discipline cut tax rates, but they just haven’t gotten around to making the necessary cuts to federal spending that are needed to bring the budget into balance.  No surprise there — cutting taxes and raising defense spending is the easy, champagne-cork-popping part of their agenda; actually digging into the details and deciding which federal programs to cut, and by how much, is the harder, painful part that every Republican running for reelection will happily defer.  And the Democrats, who have never cared too much about balanced budgets anyway, are too busy reacting with outrage to everything President Trump does or says to focus on the deficit.

Some people argue that times are good right now, so what’s the big deal?  Maybe the deficit really doesn’t make that much of a difference, they suggest.  But if the U.S. government can’t live within its means when the economy is strong and record tax revenues are rolling in to the federal treasury, what is the deficit going to look like when the economy turns sour, payrolls get cut, and tax revenues fall?  Just how big is this deficit going to get, anyway?

It all seems pretty ironic to me.  President Trump boasts of being tough with foreign governments on trade and international relations, and putting America’s interests first in all things — but the need to sell bonds to finance the growing deficit does exactly the opposite.  The Chinese, the Saudis, and everybody else who is buying the U.S. bonds we are selling are thereby acquiring enormous leverage, and if they start demanding higher interest payments before they make their purchases we’re in a world of hurt.

So pay no attention, folks!  It’s all boring numbers, anyway!  Let’s forget about the serious, long-term aspects of running a government, and go back to talking about the latest outrages that will dominate the news cycle for a day or two until some new and exciting outrage comes along.

Today’s Political Test Market

Columbus has a long and storied history as a test market for new products.  Soft drinks, fast-food offerings, and other consumer goods are often introduced here because central Ohio is a fair microcosm of the country as a whole, with a spread of income levels, races, ethnicities, and urban, suburban, and rural settings in a small geographic area.

12th_congressionalToday, the Columbus area will serve as a test market of a different sort.  The product being evaluated is politics.  There’s a special election to fill the congressional seat in the 12th District, which is one of three districts in the central Ohio area, and all indications are that the race is neck and neck.  The national political gurus are focused on the race as a potential advance indicator of the country’s mood when Election Day rolls around in November.

Republicans are worried because the 12th District has long been a GOP seat, but when long-time Congressman Pat Tiberi retired in January the seat went up for grabs.  The Democrats nominated Danny O’Connor, who has campaigned as a centrist and raised a lot of money.  In a bid to appeal to a middle of the road electorate, O’Connor originally vowed not to support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House if he was elected, although he recently retreated from that pledge.  The Republican candidate is Troy Balderson, a state Senator who has been endorsed by both Ohio Governor John Kasich, who once represented the 12th District, and President Donald Trump, who has been here recently to campaign for Balderson.  The most recent polls show the race is effectively tied.

Which way will the test market go?  There’s a reason the polls are close.  The economy is going strong in central Ohio, and the 12th District, which in Richland Country, follows I-71 south to touch down in the northern suburbs of Columbus, then sweeps east to Newark and Zanesville, includes some of the fastest growing areas of the state and areas that, until recently, were in a prolonged slump.  But central Ohioans are notoriously, well, centrist in their politics, and for many people President Trump’s bare-knuckled, name-calling style of politics hasn’t been well received.

Interestingly, although the race has drawn national attention, there hasn’t been a lot of chatter about it in our town, outside of Democratic and Republican circles.  I think many voters are keeping their cards close to their vests and are still making up their minds, and I wouldn’t even venture a guess on which way the race will go.

Many Democrats are hoping for a Blue Wave come November that will turn control of the House and Senate over to the Democrats and allow them to block President Trump’s initiatives.  If the Democrats can win the 12th District today, the Blue Wave may well have started rolling just north and east of Columbus.

Where’s A Budget-Cutter To Turn?

Congress has passed, and President Trump has signed, a $1.3 trillion interim federal spending bill.

That’s $1.3 trillion, with a “t.”  And that’s interim, in that the colossal amount of spending will only fund our out-of-control federal government until September 30, when another spending bill will be needed.

8125974243_f6ce8726f2_bPresident Trump, who briefly raised the threat of a veto before putting his John Hancock on the bill, says he’ll never sign another bill like this one.  I’m calling BS on that one.  The reality is that, for people like me who think our country has an enormous spending problem that eventually will be our downfall, there’s nowhere to turn.  The Democrats never met a domestic spending program that they didn’t want to increase.  The Republicans, who posture about deficit responsibility, have shown that they are too craven, and too interested in avoiding ruffling any feathers that might interfere with their reelection prospects, to tackle the tough job of actually reducing, and in some instances eliminating, federal programs that really aren’t necessary.  And President Trump is a deal-maker who will gladly rationalize just about anything, just as he did with this latest monstrosity by saying that the increase in military spending makes all of the rest of the irresponsibility palatable.

There are no longer any institutional forces that will restrain federal spending or cause our political class to act like statesmen and take the long-term, good-for-the-country view.  There’s no appetite whatsoever for careful judgment, for systematic review of whether programs are actually working, and for making the thoughtful choices that are a crucial part of living within your means.  Once again, we’re seeing concrete evidence that the current class of political leaders are the worst political leaders in history.

We’re on the cash-paved road to failure, and spending ourselves into oblivion, and nobody seems to really care about doing anything about it.

Shutdown Fatigue

The federal government shut down at midnight, when Congress proved to be unable to agree on a another stopgap spending bill.  As is usually the case, the Democrats and the Republicans used the looming shutdown to try to increase their leverage to obtain their political goals — whether those goals are immigration reform, or health care funding, or something else — and when neither side blinked, the shutdown occurred.  Of course, each side then blamed the other.

maxresdefaultWe’ve been through this scenario multiple times before, most recently in 2013.  We somehow made it through each of those prior cataclysms, and I’m pretty sure that the sun will come up today as well.

I may be wrong about this, but out here in the heartland I’m sensing a lot less angst, generally, about this shutdown than seemed to be the case with prior shutdowns.  Maybe it’s because we’ve been through this same, pointless charade multiple times before, and the country just has a lingering case of shutdown fatigue.  Maybe it’s because, with the flood of scandals and tweetstorms and investigations and unseemly behavior that has been washing over the nation in recent months, we’ve already used up our storehouses of outrage and have just been psychologically bludgeoned until we’re functionally insensate.  Or maybe, just maybe, we’ve come to recognize that all of this shutdown stuff is just more callous political maneuvering by both parties, and we’re heartily sick and tired of being viewed as mere pawns to be manipulated in the stupid power games that are always being played in Washington, D.C.

Whatever the cause, we’ll just go on living our lives, without paying too much attention to the yammering politicos and their efforts to pin all of the blame for this unnecessary disruption and unending dysfunctionality and irresponsibility somewhere else.  Who knows?  Maybe if we just ignore this latest shutdown, the politicians might realize that their shutdown gambit isn’t working anymore and actually go back to doing their jobs.

Where Have All The Deficit-Cutters Gone?

From time to time, both Republicans and Democrats express concern about the out-of-control accumulation of federal debt and the annual federal budget deficit.  Republicans raise the issue when they want to get elected.  Democrats raise the issue when they want to stop the GOP from cutting taxes.

But in reality, and for years now, no one in either party has done anything meaningful about the ever-growing national debt.

debt-limit-history-data-for-web-2013-updated-rjr-chart120largeConsider what’s going on now.  Republicans have been laboring over a tax bill for months, and are supposed to get it through Congress and to President Trump this week.  Of course, tax relief is an easier political sell, as rates paid by various constituencies, and backroom deals, get cut.  But where are we on spending?  Well, the House Republicans apparently want to “temporarily” extend spending for most agencies at current levels, with a $650 million increase in defense spending.  In the Senate, where Democrats hold the balance of power because of the filibuster, Democratic leaders say that we need to have equivalent increases in defense and non-defense spending.  Oh, and there’s this, too:  we’re facing another one of those stupid self-inflicted shutdown points, where some government activity will stop unless a spending bill is signed into law by Friday.

So let’s take stock here.  The House Republicans want to hold spending steady, except for an increase in defense spending — i.e., increase spending.  The Senate Democrats want to increase defense and non-defense spending — i.e., increase spending.  And our elected representatives have conveniently maneuvered themselves into a position where they can say that they need to cut a deal that will no doubt increase spending in order to avoid a partial government shutdown.  And by the way, there is absolutely no sign of the kind of thoughtful review of the thousands of ongoing government programs and subsidies and agencies to determine whether they are truly needed and should be modified or eliminated outright — which is what truly committed and rational deficit-cutters would be trying to accomplish.

Gee . . . I wonder why Congress’ credibility with American voters is so low?