Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mo' Fiscal, Mo' Problems

Last time we checked in on the manufactured "debt ceiling crisis", Republicans looked set to cave. Yesterday, they finally did. And believe it or not, Senator Dean Heller (R-46) is taking credit for the latest fiscal deal!

The House voted Wednesday to approve a three-month suspension of the congressionally set limit to the president’s borrowing authority, along with a direction to lawmakers to pass a 2014 budget by the regular, procedural order or risk losing their pay.

That caveat has come to be known in Washington as “No Budget, No Pay.” It is the brainchild of Heller, who first introduced the concept in July 2011 as a bill directed at forcing the Senate to pass budgets by regular order starting in 2013.

Heller’s been stumping for legislation ever since, advocating for its adoption before the Senate Government Affairs Committee with the help of the nonpartisan group No Labels.

Never mind that the 27th Amendment has rendered this moot. It states that any changes in Congressional salary can't take effect until the next Congress has been seated. So really, Dean Heller can take pride in John Boehner picking up his "No Budget, No Pay" plan as a publicity stunt. But really, all it did was add a little more grease to the tracks for the latest Republican fiscal cave.

Yet even with this resolved, there's even more fiscal drama coming. Remember the "Fiscal Cliff"? It's back. No really, we're now looking forward to this.

One long shot is for Republicans and Democrats to draw the contours of a tax and spending agreement in the budget process — to essentially let negotiations over a joint House-Senate budget become a proxy for negotiations over the sequester. If in the early days of the sequester, the House and Senate manage to paper over major differences between their budgets, and agree to fast-track tax reforms and safety net spending cuts through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process, it would buy them the fiscal room they need to turn off the sequester forever.

Like I said — longshot.

Alternatively, this can all play out in the public sphere: Defense contractors, Medicare providers and others will start screaming at Republicans and Democrats to reach a less onerous budget agreement. President Obama will use his bully pulpit to pin blame for the sequester and its consequences on Republicans. Eventually, pressure would grow on them —and Democrats — to cut a deal.

In the background of all this haggling is the specter of a government shutdown. A month after the sequester takes effect, funding for the federal government will run out. If the House and Senate can’t reach an agreement on appropriations, government agencies will cease operations. And nothing will draw the public’s attention to Congress’ incompetence, and the impact of the sequester than a government shutdown.

I know what's coming next. Some Republicans will whine some more about "Obama's BIG spending"! Never mind that government expenditures have actually declined since President Obama took office. Of course, this isn't the actual reason for continued G-O-TEA budget games. That's what Greg Sargent explained yesterday.

But all this means is that Republicans are simply trading one charade for another one. GOP leaders mollified House conservatives angry about today’s vote by vowing to stick to a souped up version of the Paul Ryan fiscal blueprint, one that will make deficits disappear in a mere 10 years, with no new revenues. This is a fantasy. Jonathan Chait does some back of the envelope calculations and estimates it could mean Republicans “will have to cut domestic discretionary programs and spending for the poor by about half.” As Chait concludes: “Boehner has committed now to voting on something that would require even more draconian cuts to social spending than the Ryan budget.” Needless to say, no deal will be possible if the GOP sticks to anything close to this blueprint.

This isn’t to say the road ahead for Democrats is smooth. The threats of the sequester and a government shutdown are serious, and the possibility that Dems will give up significantly more in spending cuts than liberals would like is very real. Senate Dems will now have to pass their own budget. That could be tricky, but it also may be an occasion to formally restate the Dem insistence that we must have more in revenues via closing loopholes enjoyed by the wealthy. Republicans appear confident that this will force Dems to vote for a politically difficult “tax hike,” but as the last election showed, the public prefers such tax hikes to the types of cuts House Republicans will now find themselves forced to propose.

We’re basically back where we started, which is that Republicans are demanding deficit reduction only through massive spending cuts while simultaneously refusing to permit any more in revenues from the rich. Until Republicans let go of this political hokum, the fundamental underlying argument will remain unresolved. This was true before the debt limit fantasy took flight, and it will continue, now that this fantasy crashed and burned.

This is the real reason why John Boehner swiped Dean Heller's great unconstitutional gimmick. He needed a way for House Republicans to quietly cave on the debt ceiling so they can (re)start grandstanding on the "Fiscal Cliff"/sequester. And they want to do so in order to try to force Democrats into accepting brutal cuts to the social safety net.

Unfortunately for them, Senate Democrats refuse to bite into that rotten apple. Instead, they plan to call Republicans' bluff with their own budget proposal.
As we've discussed before, Republicans really shouldn't mess with Harry Reid.

We may have to endure a few more weeks of these games of fiscal charade, but Republicans know they can't keep fighting the inevitable for too much longer. It's just too bad for the country that we must endure a few more weeks of fiscal insanity. Ah, mo' fiscal, mo' problems (but hopefully not for too much longer).

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