The DC Political Scene, Such That It Is

September 20th, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Hitting the road for a few days, so light posting.  I’ve spared my readers a blow-by-blow of the latest developments around cliffs, ceilings, CR’s, shutdowns, etc., but as gridlock shifts into overdrive and the self-inflicting wound squad are sharpening their knives, here’s my abbreviated take:

It’s all about Boehner.

Too abbreviated?  OK, I’ll explain.

As I see it, the House is in the thrall of a significant minority, willing to shut down the government and breech the debt ceiling if they can’t get their way on repealing Obamacare.  Thankfully, they will not get their way.

But that’s the bill they’ll send to the Senate.  Over there, however, I’m quite certain that there are enough D’s and moderate R’s to strip out the health care repeal and send the other parts—a budget patch to keep the lights on; later, an increase in the debt ceiling—back to the House.  If a simple majority in the House passes those bills, the President will sign them and we live to have this same fight again in another few months.  Woohoo!

Now, you’re probably wondering about that last “if”—the one about the House passing the stripped down Senate versions.  The only way that works is if Speaker Boehner allows votes that will pass with the help of Democrats.  He might even have to willing to break the “Hastert rule,” meaning that the budget and debt ceiling bills might have to pass with a minority of the majority.

And that could be the end of his speakership, so at a fundamental level, this comes down to whether Boehner’s had enough of his Kamikaze caucus.

The Markets Have Priced In a Solution: Are They Right?

Financial markets seem to think DC will figure this out at the last minute like we always do.  Partly, they just don’t believe the politicians would be that irresponsible.  One market source (no link) wrote that they “…do not believe that congressional leadership would purposefully allow the Treasury to deplete its cash and to miss payments. It would also not be in their political interest, since the payments that might be missed…include politically sensitive items such as Social Security and Medicare payments, and veterans and military retiree benefits.”

Hmmm…I’d place the likelihood of default below 50%, but to be honest, and not to be alarmist, maybe not that much below.  As CBPP’s Bob Greenstein just wrote:

In fact, House Republicans now seem to be preparing for a default.  They have proposed…to direct the Treasury to pay bondholders and Social Security recipients first if the government defaults.

Paying bondholders and Social Security recipients first won’t change the fact that the government has defaulted, and it would actually make things even worse for everyone else who’s owed money by the government — for instance, soldiers and veterans, doctors and hospitals that treat Medicare patients, state and local governments, and low-income Americans who receive Supplementary Security Income, SNAP (food stamps), and unemployment benefits.  But, the “prioritization” process seems designed to make default more palatable for the politicians doing the hostage taking.

The center usually holds…until it doesn’t.

How Did It Come to This?

That’s an important question that I’ll largely leave to political scientists.  Someone the other day suggested that once Congressional leaders could no longer dole out earmarks to members of their caucus, they lost an important disciplinary tool—“break with your leaders and you won’t get that bridge!”  The political scientists I’ve asked about this say, “maybe,” but the Hill vets tend to put a lot of weight on this explanation.

I’ve argued that wealth concentration has interacted with money in politics such that folks like the Koch’s can buy the politics they—not the parties’ leaders funded by establishment money—want (they can also buy the “think tanks” to explain why they’re right [sic]).

And, as budget expert Maya MacGuineas noted the other day on a panel we were on together, don’t underestimate the damage done by not having a budget.  All this fiscal patchwork—“continuing resolutions”—means there’s never a lasting agreement on receipts and outlays that both sides have hammered out together.  That creates endless oxygen for the renegades to get their crazy on.

Finally, it really does seem to be the case that the obstructionists are doing the bidding of their constituents.  One House R was quoted in the paper the other day saying, essentially: the folks back in my district would rather see me work to shut down the government and default on the debt then compromise.  And I’m gonna listen to them, not Boehner and Cantor.

One could of course peel the onion back further and ask why constituents want their reps to take votes that would do far more harm than good on many levels—votes that will likely hurt their party, the broader economy, even their own living standards.  But once we get to that part of the onion, my eyes start to tear up.

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13 comments in reply to "The DC Political Scene, Such That It Is"

  1. Tom in MN says:

    The folks back home in that R’s district also want government to keep their hands off Medicare. Makes me want to cry too.

    I think Krugman has it right in his latest column: live by the crazy, die by the crazy.


  2. Dausuul says:

    Boehner’s Speakership might survive a government shutdown; the voters will likely punish Republicans for a shutdown, but it would take a lot of punishment to hand the House back to Pelosi.

    However, his Speakership absolutely *will not* survive a debt default. He would lose all power with the establishment after such an appalling failure to look after the establishment’s interests, and that would leave him with no constituency. The business class that bankrolls the Republican Party would be calling for heads, and Boehner’s would be at the top of the list. Even if Republicans managed to dump blame for the disaster on Obama, Boehner personally would be gone.

    It’s within Boehner’s power to ensure there is no default, and therefore there will be no default. All he has to do is call for a vote on a clean debt limit hike. He’ll take it down to the wire if he can, but in the end he’ll do what he’s gotta do.


  3. purple says:

    I think you touched on something with the Koch statement not often talked about.

    The North East Establishment simply doesn’t call the shots anymore. The richest family in the world is based in Arkansas, which was unthinkable 30 years ago. And Koch industries is based out of Kansas. Manufacturing has moved to Dixie. The South has always been a hotbed of reaction, except they have a lot more economic power now.

    The wealthy themselves have become much more fragmented and this manifests itself in politics.

    People vote on things like abortion, not just economics. This is why Rick Perry provoked that confrontation in Austin. And, there are large number of poor minorities in all the Red States (Miss is 30% black, Texas 50+% black or Hispanic) who really will be punished most harshly in any shutdown.

    As for Boehner, if he gets toppled there is very little doubt a hardliner will take his place. That’s no solution.


  4. Peter K. says:

    It may be the end of Boehner’s speakership if he doesn’t default and he violates the Hastert rule again, but if he does, it will destroy the Republican Party. Seems more likely that he’ll just shut down the government and we’ll party like it’s 1995.


  5. JFC says:

    This is the question that has vexed so many for years. Why do so many people vote against their own economic self interest? I wish I had an insightful and sage answer. I think it has something to do with the legacy of racism. I see a connection between this current Republican fanaticism and the overt hatred and violence against black Americans in the 60’s. Do so-called political scientists have anthing to say anout that?


    • Lynne Kane says:

      Brack comment following you, JFC, is the answer. Fear + a dose of racism. Many ordinary hard-working Americans cannot understand how the US is no longer calling all the shots in the world and winning all the time, so they revert to extremism, especially religious positions that they suppose a deity will answer with a return to American world predominance.
      Then there is the increasing awareness that white Europe-descended people will not be the majority in America in the foreseeable future. Fear and a return to extremism again, mixed into a sudden confrontation with previously unrecognized Islamic extremism in spots around the globe.
      Obama administration must be more specific more often about the specific benefits of Obamacare, the specific damage of block sequester funding cuts, the danger of the fading middle class leaving little hope for a better economic future. Let us hope specifics would counter the utterly misleading ads on TV and repair the confusion about medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, SNAP food-help programs.


    • purple says:

      The Tea Party is mostly middle class and they do not see themselves voting against their economic self-interest. They certainly do not identify with the whites in the trailer courts.

      All in all, poor whites are not decisive politically because they mostly don’t vote – just like other poor people.


  6. Fred Brack says:

    You’re peeling the wrong onion here, Jared. The onion you have in hand is a post-Enlightment Onion, a relatively new variety in human history. That is, an onion composed of reason.

    But the relevant onion is the pre-Enlightment variety, composed entirely of raw emotion. Peel this onion back and all you find is fear, hate, rage. The constituents animating the irreconcilable R’s hate the government, which they consider equivalent to Satan, and view taxes as armed robbery. Ratcheting up this rage is the fact, firmly documented by research, of white panic.

    For irreconcilable R’s and their dominant constituents then, shutting down the government is not a political tactic. It is an end to be desired. Ditto defaulting on the national debt. (Go back to interviews with irreconcilable R’s and Tea Partyers in 2011 and you’ll find evidence supporting this.)

    Not convinced? Think of road-rage incidents where a driver guided by the pre-Enlightenment portion of his brain crashes his car into the object of his rage, demolishing both cars. Rage must be gratified, no matter what the consequences.

    Talk to John Boehner about this, Jared.


    • Perplexed says:

      “But the relevant onion is the pre-Enlightment variety, composed entirely of raw emotion. Peel this onion back and all you find is fear, hate, rage. The constituents animating the irreconcilable R’s hate the government, which they consider equivalent to Satan, and view taxes as armed robbery…
      For irreconcilable R’s and their dominant constituents then, shutting down the government is not a political tactic. It is an end to be desired.”

      It is an old onion, but very much still post-Enlightenment, & its both a political tactic and a desired political end.

      Its much more understandable when you understand the origins:

      http://jaredbernsteinblog.com/how-did-fiscal-policy-get-turned-upside-down/#comment-1565499


  7. purple says:

    Just an additional comment. A sojourn in small town Red State America has led me to believe that these constituents see a qualitative difference between Medicare and Medicaid, between Social Security and Food Stamps. The middle class Tea Party types vote in very high percentages (unlike the poor of all colors), and they don’t use Medicaid or Food Stamps.


    • Fred Brack says:

      You’re on to something important here, purple.

      If 92% of Americans who want jobs have jobs, even if a portion of them want full-time work but can’t find it or want jobs other than the ones they have, where’s the constituency for an urgent need to end mass unemployment? Answer: the unemployed or underemployed are scattered and thus unorganized or occupy the bottom socio-economic rungs and are thus unacquainted with the efficacy of political action.

      If 85% of Americans have health insurance, and most of them are broadly satisfied with that insurance and unaware of its possible limitations and/or have been made fearful of change and of government bureaucrats rather than doctors making healthcare decisions, where’s the constituency for ObamaCare? Answer: the uninsured and underinsured are scattered and thus unorganized or occupy the bottom socio-economic rungs and have been making do with emergency-room care, or they are young and healthy and see no need for health insurance.

      The I’M all right, Jack factor cannot be overemphasized.


  8. David Weinschrott says:

    On the views of people back home: check the “survey questions” being sent to constituents. A rep in my state (Messer-Indiana) gave me the following options:

    Do you support funding the government while fully delaying and defunding Obamacare? (yes, no, undecided)

    Do you support defunding Obamacare even if it means a government shutdown? (yes, no,undecided)

    So I am supposed to authorize this representative to be irresponsible! He wouldn’t take my NO! because I am in the wrong zip code.

    Lord have mercy.


  9. Joe Coles says:

    The way I learned it back in high school, we have representatives whose job is to listen to their constituents, and then to vote in a reasoned manner with a eye to balancing the wants of their constituents with the reality of the need for rational government. The idea was to not let the rabid hotheads rule. Nowdays they just do what they are told and apparently the iddue of who gets to tell is decided in town hall meetings by who can yell the loudest. As it currently stands, we don’t need the house at all. Just put everything up for a popular vote and ship it to the senate. Couldn’t be much worse, and look at all the money we’d save.


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