Category Archives: Congress

Speaker Boehner’s Light Gavel

Throughout the debt ceiling debate one of the most forefront questions has been whether or not Speaker of the House John Boehner will be able to introduce legislation that most of the Republican caucus will vote for or legislation that a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats will vote for. This week the speaker has tried to move through legislation that could pass the House with just Republican support, but yesterdays vote in the House disengaged due to lack of support from his own caucus. Much of the analysis of this failure will look at the divides in the Congressional Republicans, or on were the power will shift to in the aftermath.

However, the events of the past few weeks put into sharp relief the difference in leadership and power of the last two people to hold the gavel in the US House of Representatives. Last year when Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi held the gavel she was able to hold together a divided Democratic Caucus to pass the Health Care Reform bill, and before that she was able to pass the Recovery Act. While the divides in the Democratic caucus were not as wide or as deep, they were there, and Pelosi was able to find the numbers. Speaker Boehner may have brought a bigger gavel with him, but it’s much lighter than the one Pelosi used so effectively.

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Trading a Policy Problem for a Political Problem

As the summer has gotten hotter, the pressure has increased on members of Congress and the Obama Administration to reach a deal on the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling was established in 1939 and allows Congress to authorize the Department of the Treasury to issue public debt. The debt ceiling currently stands at $14.294 trillion, the government reached that limit in May and extraordinary measures will be exhausted by about August 2nd. By raising the debt limit the government will be able to pay its already incurred legal obligations – the debt limit is not about future spending but about past financial commitments. The negotiations between the Republican leadership and the White House have resulted in little movement, and it has shown that the politics of the situation are murky at best.

Both sides are far apart on multiple pieces of deal. Congressional Republicans want a deal reduce the deficit by $2 trillion over ten years, while the Obama Administration wants a deal that would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over ten years. Congressional Republicans want to achieve deficit reduction exclusively through budget cuts, while the Obama Administration wants to achieve deficit reduction through a combination of budget cuts and tax increases (although tax increases represent less than a fifth of the package). There have also reports of possible cuts to Social Security and Medicare. But, it seems that a large multitrillion dollar deal might be unattainable – as Congressional Republicans have rejected the idea of any deal with new revenue.

There is another proposal that has been floated today; Ezra Klein reports that Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnel proposed replacing a policy deal with a political deal:

The process McConnell is proposing would go like this: First, Obama would submit a request for a $700 billion increase in the debt ceiling, along with a nonbinding proposal to cut spending. That would automatically trigger a $100 billion increase in the debt ceiling to give Congress time to consider the request. Congress could then vote to either approve or disapprove of the president’s request. If they disapprove of it, however, Obama could veto their disapproval, and unless two-thirds of both chambers voted to overturn his veto — a virtually unthinkable outcome given that Democrats control the Senate — he could raise the debt ceiling anyway.

The same thing would happen, albeit in $900 billion increments rather than $700 billion increments, in fall 2011 and summer 2012. Take it all together, and Republicans would almost completely forfeit their leverage over the debt ceiling. In return, they’d get to make Democrats vote repeatedly to first raise the debt ceiling and then to “approve” of raising the debt ceiling. As Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said, this “gives the president 100 percent of the responsibility.”

Or, to put it differently, 100 percent of the blame. Raising the debt ceiling is unpopular. That’s part of why House Republicans are demanding such massive concessions in return for doing it. But McConnell, who leads the Senate minority and wants to lead the Senate majority in 2013, would not have to vote for any increases in the debt ceiling, nor would his members. That’s why this appeals to him: It would force Senate Democrats to repeatedly vote to raise the debt ceiling, and he hopes that would make it easier to defeat them in the next election. As David Corn described it, the message to the president is: “You drive. We’ll carp.”

The proposal has received mostly negative reviews, from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and from conservative and liberal commentators. But, Ezra Klein had another interesting observation:

I should say that I don’t know why House Republicans would go for it and it seems clear that this is going to be a big black eye for McConnell. But that doesn’t make it a bad plan. In essence, McConnell is proposing to permanently disarm the bomb that is the debt ceiling. He’d formalize the informal arrangement the parties have had in recent years, which is that the debt ceiling is used to embarrass the party in power, but it’s not allowed to threaten the American economy. If his plan passed, it’d become easier for the minority party to embarrass the majority party, but harder for them to threaten the economy. It’s win-win.

If you want to take a generous view of McConnell’s motivations here, you’d say that the canny Kentuckian, whose understanding of the way polarization and party discipline dominate today’s congress vastly exceeds that of any other politician, realized that it was no longer safe to assume that the two parties would always reach agreement in time to lift the debt ceiling, and in that world, the debt ceiling was too dangerous to the American economy.

The cynical interpretation of McConnell’s motivations is that knowing there’s no deal Republicans could sign onto and the White House would accept, he’s moved on to a strategy of embarrassing Democrats rather than trying to reach agreement. But in truth, that’s a distinction without a difference. Whether he’s responding to congressional dysfunction or demonstrating it, his proposal is still a way of getting past it, or at least limiting the damage it can do to the economy. That the very forces that make it necessary make it impossible to pass seems obvious, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t pass. McConnell is giving us a way out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves, and eventually, we’re going to wish we’d taken it.

So, should the Obama Administration trade a policy problem for a political one? Should it ensure the fragile economic recovery is not derailed by accepting a politically dangerous deal?


Policy or Political Problem?

We have public policy problems, caused by political problems. The budget, the deficit, and the debt are all public policy problems with multiple solutions. In fact most of our problems in domestic policy, foreign policy, or culturally have multiple solutions. However, our political institutions have been unable to address our public policy problems, and innovated solutions have been ignored. Why is that?

Ezra Klein writes that “Americans live in a new economic reality, and it’s long past time that Washington did, too. In the short term, the nation faces a jobs crisis; in the long-term, a debt crisis. Each crisis presents opportunities to overhaul the state for a new era. Instead, Democrats and Republicans are using both to double down on the same stale ideas they were pushing in 2005, 2001, 1997 and even earlier.” Klein then lays out a case for some interesting and innovative solutions for both long term and short term problems.

Klein goes on to say that “You wouldn’t know that such options even exist from the state of our cramped debates about jobs and the deficit. But those stilted discussions are a function of the political environment, not the policy options.” While he has laid out a case for our policy problems, he didn’t really address our political problems. Without addressing our political problem the policy problems are going to continue to be exasperated. These political problems manifest in political polarization and filter bubbles.

Political polarization has been increasing steadily over the last thirty years, and this has had a dramatic effect on public policy. Political scientists Keith Poole and Christopher Hare have published research that shows that Congress is more politically polarized that at any time since the late 19th Century. This polarization has happened due to redistricting efforts that has protected incumbents and the party in power, and the conservative movement that has moved the Republican Party further to the right. The political parties are so far apart, that compromises become politically toxic.

According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, the 112th Congress, measured by votes taken, bills made into laws, nominees approved, is on pace to be one of the least productive sessions of Congress ever. Nothing is getting done. From January until the end of May, 16 piece of legislation have been signed into law — compared with 50 during that period in 2010. In 2007, when there was also an ideological split government (although the dynamic was different), 28 pieces of legislation became law. The Republican controlled House or Representatives passes conservative pieces of legislation, that is then stalled in the Democrat controlled Senate. Compromise seems unattainable.

So, what is the solution to our political problem? A public policy failure. For example, one of the reasons that the reforms needed o repair the financial system was not achieved was because the system did not collapse, it was propped up. There was therefore not a demand for real reform. If the debt ceiling negotiations fall through, then we could see a real public policy failure. If America defaulting on its debt obligations begins to affects people in a real way, then you might see a demand for political change. The other solution is a political failure. But, what would that look like?