Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Boehner saves himself

One of the odder consequences of the shutdown is that I'm visiting National Review Online many times per day, because it's basically the only outlet with any access to the House GOP.  Here's an interesting passage from Jonathan Strong's reporting today:
While some on the right have been sniping about peripheral issues, Boehner largely embraced the playbook put together by conservatives like Senators Ted Cruz, who wanted to use the continuing-resolution bill to wage a fight over Obamacare. 
So now that the fight has been lost, it’s not Boehner whom they blame, but the GOP’s moderates, who pushed to end the government shutdown earlier. 
“Actually I think the speaker stood up and said ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ I remember at conference on Thursday he said ‘there’s only one way out of this, and that’s to win.’ Well, that’s not the way it ended up,” says Representative Tim Huelskamp. 
“But it’s pretty hard when he has a circle of 20 people that step up every day and say, ‘can we surrender today, Mr. Speaker? Can we just go away? Can we make it easy?’ I mean, whining and whining. I would say surrender caucus, but it’s a whiner caucus. And all they do is whine about the battle, as if they thought being elected to Washington was going to be an easy job,” he says.
There are two interesting things to take away from this article.

The first is that Boehner has successfully threaded the needle.  By shutting down the government until the last possible second, he's convinced his caucus that he'll go to bat for them and the only thing holding him back is the weenies in the center.  That's an amazing bit of political judo.  Virtually everyone sees Boehner's inability to unite his party around a single set of demands as being tremendously damaging for Republicans, but by holding fast and letting the damage occur, Boehner has deflected the blame (at least within his own party) on to moderates.  Conversely, if he'd folded early and saved the party the embarrassment, there'd be people calling for his head.

The other takeaway?  It sure seems a lot like Boehner shut down the country for two weeks, skirted with the threat of default, raised US borrowing costs, slowed job growth, and undermined Americans' confidence in their government and economy, all for the sake of saving his job.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Democrats still shouldn't budge

Again and again, the Republican Party has attempted to persuade Harry Reid and President Obama to give up something for nothing.  Cruz was laughed off stage.  Boehner got nowhere.  Now, it's Paul Ryan's turn to convince the Democrats that this hostage situation is not one.

The usual suspects on the right are, as always, impressed by Ryan's policy prentensions.  But beneath a thin veneer of wonkspeak, he's just selling the same crappy bargain as everyone else.  No one left of center is fooled, least of all Jonathan Chait:
Ryan has certainly ratcheted back his most audacious demands. He does not propose destroying Obamacare and does not propose the deep cuts targeting programs for the poorest Americans that are the most noxious feature of his budget. (“This isn't a grand bargain,” he writes. “For that, we need a complete rethinking of government's approach to helping the most vulnerable, and a complete rethinking of government's approach to health care.”) While smaller in ambition, his current plan is equally one-sided. 
Ryan is offering to use the cuts that Obama put forward in his compromise budget from last spring. But that budget was explicitly made as a middle-ground offer, and the cuts were contingent upon Republicans agreeing to reduce tax deductions along with them. Ryan isn’t offering any revenue. He’s offering to pocket the concessions, full stop.
The shutdown is already a farce, but the right keeps taking it up a notch.  As the standoff continues, the impression created is increasingly one of dire mismatch in the two sides' comprehension of the fight, roughly analogous to, for example, an M1 tank falling through a hole in time and landing in King Arthur's court.  Against this interloper the lords and ladies are currently summoning a series of self-professed mystics, warlocks, and wizards, each inspiring greater awe from the faithful than the last, but to the educated eyes of our wayward crew, each more clownish than before.  And every challenger is no easier or more difficult to dispatch than the previous.  Before us now comes Ryan the Mighty, Wielder of Graphs, Prime Wonk, glory to his house! A man who is no way a charlatan enamored of his own abilities, relying on deceptions that are completely transparent to the minimally enlightened.

In response to the GOP's succession of magical champions, the best option the Democrats have is education through repetition.  Ryan's budgeteering should get no more reaction and no more favor than Cruz's ranting or Boehner's grousing.  The players might change but the deal should remain the same: reopening the government is okay, and so is a clean CR, but further negotiations will not begin until these things occur.  Calling negotiations "a bargain on entitlements and sequestration" makes no difference; whatever you call it, Ryan's offer should be treated as if it were no more persuasive than Cruz's demand that Obamacare be scrubbed from existence--because it isn't, and for the same reasons.

That doesn't mean rejecting everything Republicans put forward.  While maintaining their conviction not to negotiate, Democrats should support any GOP effort to fund the government or extend the debt ceiling without condition--even for a short span of time.  Thus far the Democrats have seemed reluctant to do this, rightly fearing that their opponents are only seeking to set up a similar crisis in the immediate future, in order to make further demands.  But so what if they are?  It should already be established--and should be continually established, with the collapse of each successive offer to reduce the ransom price--that no demands will be honored.  Future demands included.  If Republicans want to repeatedly subject America to fiscal crisis so they can go on television and make pointless, hopeless, deeply unpopular ultimatums, Democrats can't stop them.  But they can ensure that these episodes serve only as pieces of national theater, and in doing so force Republicans to weight their political cost against their gain, which is nothing.

This approach also has the advantage of being a good deal easier to explain than the current negotiating posture, which seems to be something along the lines of "We won't negotiate unless you stop taking hostages for a while."  At that point the debate naturally devolves to "What is a sufficient period of time to get you negotiating," which benefits no one.  The correct approach is, instead, "We're happy to let you release any hostages you feel like, but we won't ever give you anything for them," which forces the GOP to decide if all this is really worth it.

So if you're a Democratic congressional leader or President Obama and you're reading my blog, here's what you need to do.  Go on TV and lay down two simple rules.
  1. You will pass any unconditional extension of the debt ceiling or extension of government funding.
  2. During periods in which the threat of default is hanging over our heads, or the government is shut down, you will not negotiate on budget issues, Obamacare, or anything else.  
Even the pre-modern political thinkers of the GOP should be able to understand those conditions.  And then, just wait.  After they've exhausted every spell and sorcery in their arsenal, and you still haven't budged, and they realize just how foolish they've been looking, you might actually get some results.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The "partial" government shutdown

Has anyone else noticed this?  The government shutdown is no longer a shutdown, but a "partial shutdown," at least according to certain major media outlets.  I first saw the term on some TV network, CNN maybe, and didn't think much of it.  But now the shutdown is being described as "partial" on the front page of the NYT, and earlier I saw the phrase in the Star Tribune too.

I guess it's not literally inaccurate.  The government has not ceased to exist.  Certainly many people are still working in government positions, though they're largely not getting paid for it.  So, yeah, in that sense, I suppose the shutdown might be understood as not complete, and therefore partial?

But still.  The current situation is very much what people mean and envision when they talk about a "government shutdown."  Moreover, it's basically what happened in previous shutdowns.  Talking about it as if it's partial implies that the government could somehow shut even further down, something that wouldn't have any real precedent or relation to previous standoffs.

And what makes the NYT's choice to adopt this particular usage at this particular moment especially questionable is that a major GOP talking point throughout the crisis has been that the government isn't really closed.  Instead, its faithful say, Obama has been selectively, vindictively closing down the most-loved and most visible federal institutions--national parks, the WWII memorial, Amber Alerts--in an effort to punish Republican intransigence.  The wild implausibility of this theory aside, it's been embraced by the right, with Fox News talking about a government "slimdown" and propagating a number of increasingly unhinged stories about Obama's willingness to selectively fund various (sometimes fictional) government bodies.  The theory is also feeding into a vague sense among conservatives that an unending government shutdown would be a great way to make de facto cuts to government services, because anything that was truly important, Obama would just leave open.

In that light, the NYT's new language doesn't look quite so much like a stab at accuracy as a sop to the right.  It avoids the reality that the government really is in almost every sense shut down, and enables conservatives to cling to their loony pet theory unchallenged by facts.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Here are the strategies the Republicans should adopt, but won't

Hey, Republicans, you don't have a strategy for the shutdown.  That much is clear from your inept negotiating, your publicity stunts, and, of course the already-famous quote from Rep. Stutzman: "We're not going to be disrespected.  We've got to get something out of this.  And I don't know what that even is."  But that's okay, it's never too late to start thinking ahead!  Might I suggest a couple of approaches?

1.  If you're absolutely, absolutely determined to take this thing down to the wire, go ahead and raise the debt ceiling already.  I know, I know--you crazy kids think it's giving you leverage over the president.  Sure, you tell yourselves, he's ignoring you now, but come Oct. 15th, he'll have to listen.

Well, he won't.  The fiasco in 2011 taught President Obama that messing with the debt ceiling is playing with fire.  He set off a whole string of budget-related crises and didn't have a thing to show for it.  Keeping the government closed is bad, but default would be catastrophic; as long as the debt ceiling is in the mix, the administration is going to be heavily focused on breaking the your party's delusion that default makes a great bargaining chip.  

Raising the ceiling muddles the administration's mission a little bit.  Governments have a history of shutting down over policy disagreement, and as a result, there's less fear about setting a new, bad precedent.  The shutdown makes life more difficult for everyone, and without the artificial deadline imposed by the debt ceiling, it could potentially drag on for many weeks or months.  It's an environment where you really might be able to force an exhausted administration to make some concessions.  Not closing-down-Obamacare type concessions, but, in Rep. Stutzman's words, "something."

Oh, and what's more, the debt ceiling's long shadow is endangering your own coalition.  There's almost no doubt that a large faction within in your own party desperately wants to avoid default, because default would be a disaster. Many of those people are also skeptical about the wisdom of the shutdown. But right now, they don't seem to have much appetite for concerted resistance: breaking with the party could potentially cause them all manner of trouble, up to and including losing their seats.  Once the full faith and credit of the United States is threatened, however, some of these moderates might well be willing to take one for the team.  (By "team," I mean "America.")  They lose their job, but they get to be heroes.   

So raise the debt ceiling.  It'll firm up your ranks and strengthen your hand.

2.  What's that?  You can't?  The Tea Party faction wouldn't vote for it?  Well, then you ought to just abandon this thing as soon as possible.  If you can't prolong the shutdown for ages and ages (and again, unless you raise the debt ceiling, everyone knows it'll end by Oct. 17th), you should probably just give up now.  The longer you wait, the worse your position gets.  Voters get angrier.  More and more dissent emerges in the party.  The media becomes increasingly willing to blame you, and you alone, for all the bad stuff that's happening.  You get the gist.  

In fact, as a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, I'm a little concerned that it'll end too early.  Too many House members will wise up and abandon Boehner, leading to a quick CR.  The whole affair will ultimately be prosecuted in the media after the fact, which is a much friendlier environment for you.  It'll devolve into he-said-she-said, Obama-was-mean-and-the-GOP-was-unreasonable, and by election time, everyone will have forgotten just how crappy you are at your job.  

You could totally speed this process along, though!  You just have to give up!

So, anyway, there are your options.  Raise the debt ceiling now, or call the whole thing off.  Something tells me you won't take either of them, but trust me, soon enough, you'll wish you had.

The failure of the American political system

Lots of talk today on the ol' blogosphere about the problem with American constitutional governance, predicated in part by the death of political scientist Juan Linz, and in part, of course, by the shutdown.  The best take is easily Dylan Matthews' on Wonkblog, and I highly suggest you read it.

But with that said, I think even his depiction of the underlying problem is a little more complicated than it needs to be.  The fact is, you don't have to be a political scientist to find the fault in America's political system.  The difficulty is easily described in very simple terms:
-Political systems exist in order to drive government decision-making.  
-In order to do so, they have to be able to resolve contests between competing proposals by different agents. 
-An idealized political system would have a process to resolve a dispute between any two agents or groups of agents (i.e., political parties). 
-Veto points occur when a political system contains a process which requires the mutual consent of two agents, and has no means of resolving a dispute between those agents on how to proceed.  Any time this happens, there exists the potential for deadlock, if the agents disagree.   
-Deadlocks at veto points have to be resolved externally.  Because there is no legitimate political process to call on when they occur, participants have no option but to appeal to outside forces to help resolve the conflict, with unpredictable effects.  This includes everything from fuzzy concepts like "legitimacy" to public opinion to seriously destabilizing stuff like military intervention. 
-This process will eventually result in extra-political actions that destroy the system in question.
Some number of veto points are probably inevitable in any government, the result of the messy process of building a state.  But the American system is basically unique for containing many frequently-encountered veto points at a high level.  The filibuster is one.  The bicameral house is another.  And the division between executive and legislative power is a third.  (The judiciary, by contrast, fares pretty well in this analysis: its ability to overrule and be overruled by the other branches is well-understood.)

So why has the American government survived so long?  With the disclaimer that I'm not a political scientist, here are some guesses.

First off, it hasn't.  Not only was the country eventually split in half by civil war, the American political system has gone through a number of dramatic shifts over time, as different branches and agencies became more or less important in governance.  One of the ironies of Americans' insistence on preserving our relatively old constitution is that doing so has helped disguise what are otherwise some pretty striking discontinuities in the workings of politics.

Second, the relative longevity of American government has allowed the development of norms which help prevent deadlocked political actors from turning to the most extreme external measures.  Or, in plain english, it's unlikely anyone in this country would support a military coup to override a filibuster.

Third, diffuse parties.  Check the Matthews post for more.  Still, I think this is overrated: it's not like legislative party politics has ever been the only potential sticking point in the system.

Finally, our veto points, while very real, usually cause inaction, not crisis.  Deadlocks just mean nothing happens.  This has bizarre, anti-democratic consequences--frequently, it's impossible to get anything done, even if each and every person in Congress prefers action--but it also means that failures don't result in escalating efforts to break the stalemate; instead, they return us to the status quo, which was (presumably) a functioning equilibrium.  In other words, the ability of the political system to automatically elect not to proceed might have insulated it from its other great failings.

But here's the problem: in the current crisis, in order to preserve the status quo, the government must affirmatively elect to proceed.  If Congress can't move forward, the government will slowly erode away and we'll default on our debt.  It's a bad time to find ourselves exposed to America's full array of constitutional flaws, and it's hard to think any of this can end very well.

The life expectancy of the debt ceiling

Yglesias today, on the importance of not negotiating on the debt ceiling:
Michael Grunwald from Time was on Twitter earlier today pounding the message that ultimately a deal has to be made and Obama should be willing to pay some price in order to avert the disaster of a debt ceiling breach. That's fine if Obama's personal reputation is the only thing at stake. You really don't want to be the guy who presided over an unprecedented catastrophe and might make some small or even mid-sized concession to Republicans to avoid it.  
But from the standpoint of the country as a whole, a debt ceiling breach in 2013 is no more disastrous than a breach in 2017 or 2022. And the problem with "cutting a deal" with Republicans is that it essentially makes an eventual breach inevitable.  
If the hostage-taking gambit works, then it will be used over and over again until it goes wrong. The only responsible thing for Obama to do is to struggle with all his might to take this gambit off the table now and forever. 
Matt's not wrong about the dangers of negotiating.  But I don't quite agree that appeasement leads inexorably to default.  That assertion relies pretty heavily on the assumption that debt ceiling standoffs will replay themselves over and over until someone finally either stands their ground, or alternatively, goofs up the timeline and inadvertently sends the country into default.  Assuming that debt ceiling crises recur, either is plausible, and possibly inevitable.

But it's hard not to think that the debt ceiling itself is in its last years.  At best, it's constant irritant to the governing party, and at worst, it's a ticking time bomb.  The next time either party establishes complete control of both houses and the presidency, I bet the debt ceiling is immediately written out of law, in a safe, non-controversial manner, with no platinum coins or 14th Amendment debates involved.

In that light, Grunwald's strategy looks a little better: he wants us to keep the bomb from going off, until such time as we can disarm it safely.

Broadly speaking, though, I'm still pretty sympathetic to Yglesias's hard-line view.  The problem isn't the unavoidability of default so much as it's the extent of the GOP's demands this time around.  After all, it might be many years before either party is in a position to do away with the debt ceiling.  In the meantime, the GOP has demonstrated that negotiating only leads to greater demands and more frequent standoffs; if we pursue Grunwald's strategy, there's no telling how badly civil society will need to be gutted in order to keep time on the clock. The debt ceiling has a short life expectancy, but a country where the minority rules by crisis-induced fiat has an even shorter one.