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The Mayans were right...

...Only when they said "end of the world" they apparently meant "end of the Republican party." Last night's "Plan B" failure seems to have been a debacle for John ("Party of One") Boehner, who had been strengthened by Obama's reelection, which provided the Speaker with a rational and sensible interlocutor and a (somewhat) chastened party.Unfortunately his party -- if that's what you can call today's GOP -- apparently hasn't learned its lessons. Whatever one thinks of Republicans, it is bad news for the country when there is no coherent counterpart to negotiate with. Can anyone do any better? Boehner's obits are already popping up:Ezra Klein:

A significant number of Boehners members clearly dont trust his strategic instincts, they dont feel personally bound to support him, they clearly disagree with his belief that tax rates must rise as part of a deal, and they, along with many other Republicans, must be humiliated after the shenanigans on the House floor this evening. Worse, they know that Boehner knows hell need Democratic support to get a budget deal done. That means a cave, at least from the perspective of the conservative bloc, is certain. That, too, will make a change of leadership appealing.

The WaPo's Chris Cillizza:

The Republican party is in a bad place. Boehner is, ostensibly, the leader of the GOP right now since he is the Republican foil to the President. When that leader cant rally a majority of votes in a chamber his party controls for a proposal he has made clear is personally and politically important to him, it suggests one thing: no one is at the controls. Its also the latest indicator that the party is deeply divided between establishment types like Boehner who are trying to find the best deal possible and the base of the party who isnt interested in making those sorts of compromises.

Even Jennifer Rubin is aghast, in her inimitable way:

This is a party acting like a minority party, or worse, like petulant teenagers...the fault lieswith the spineless members who think theyll escape blame if they dont vote for any measure. That is folly, not to mention political cowardice. To govern is to choose, and they apparently can do neither.

Jonathan Bernstein, however, tries to see the glass as half full:

More generally, what comes next depends on what the House leadership learned from this debacle. It could be that they have some 125 or so members perfectly willing to vote for a major deal; if so, the deal that Obama and Boehner were reportedly close to earlier this week could wind up returning even before January 1. Or it could be that what liberals have been saying all along turned out to be true: A plan with an identical result will count to the people who matter in the GOP as a dreaded tax increase if its done now, but suddenly it will count as a tax cut if its done after Jan. 1, when the current tax rates expire. If thats the case, were going over the cliff, but a deal could be reached and pass in early January. Or, finally, it could be that what Republicans really want is to never take a vote to confirm the next tax rates, and would rather (as was suggested a while ago) just allow the Senate bill (which would raise rates only for households making over $250,000) to pass if necessary by voting present and letting Democrats supply the votes.

The GOP has been devoted to an oppositional strategy for so long it makes it hard to pivot and actually govern. Because of gerrymandering in the House and the historical pattern of the president's party losing seats in the midterms it seems unlikely Republicans will lose control of the House in 2014 -- though they're doing their best to upend tradition. The danger is that we have nearly two years and various existential fiscal challenges between now and then that will require some sort of cooperation and compromise.

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In my opinion the two sides deserve each other. As crazy as the Republicans may be on the tax front, Obama is just as crazy on the spending front. There is nothing "rational and sensible" about adding a trillion of public debt each fiscal year based on the irrational conviction that "the economy will get better and tax revenues will go up." I hope I am wrong, but I suspect that Obama is setting this country for a bond market dislocation and a bout of inflation that will make the tea party look like "rational and sensible" people in comparison with Obama.

Among lots of other things I'm not, I'm certainly not an economist. But, for what it's worth, let me call attention to Paul Krugman's piece in today's NY Times. I fear that he's right about the governmental paralysis that the House Republicans are begetting by their ideological rigidity.

I don't think it's the end of the world if there is no deal. If the Bush tax cuts expire and everyone's taxes go back to the levels they were during the Clinton era, our tax rates would still be lower than they have been for most of the past century and lower than that of other developed countries. So let them all expire. Once the tax piece is no longer on the table, our fractured Congress would agree to more spending: the GOP would get more money for defense in exchange for the Democrats getting more money for domestic programs. I'm not seeing anything at all changed in how Washington operates; they're all behaving exactly as they have the past four years.

Robert Costa from National Review has some in-person reporting here. It doesn't seem pretty.

There could be a deal in early Jan.? So where's the cliff?The Republicans are willing to let the old, higher tax rates go into effect, but they don't call that an increase in taxes? Mathematical idiocy, as somebody called it, not to mention metaphysical lunacy of ignoring facts. Do these guys have a working brain amonst them?

It just proves that your going to get nothing done when people have big egos and hate. These politicians have big egos and they hate each other. They really don't care about anything else but themselves. The country and the people mean ablsolutely zero to them. They have one goal, namely, what's good for me, and what gets me re-elected.

@Andrew P Savarese (12/21, 1:52 pm) Just curious: which people do you mean? From my perspective it looks like "these politicians" you refer to are a substantial caucus within the Republican Party. (It may look different from your vantage point. If so, I'd be interested to hear more.)

What if the legislative and executive branches of the government agreed to NOT impose the changes on January 1st that they had agreed to that would cause this "fiscal cliff?"Who's going to be able to do anything about it?

@Jim McCrea (12/21, 4:23 pm) If I understand the situation correctly, the "fiscal cliff" has three major parts:1 - the scheduled (as in, written into law) expiration of the all the Bush income tax cuts (which were extended by President Obama and the Congress two years ago);2 - the expiration of extended unemployment benefits, payroll tax reductions, and a number of tax credits that were part of legislation passed in President Obama's first term;3 - the "sequestration" of nearly $100 billion (split roughly equally between defense spending and "non-defense domestic discretionary" spending in funds that are currently part of the FY 2013 budget (the sequester was put into the debt ceiling legislation at the Republicans' insistence in the summer of 2011).As all three are written into law, it would require a new act of Congress signed by the president (or passed over his veto) to stop any or all of the above from taking effect at the beginning of 2013. That said, it's actually more of a "gentle fiscal incline" (to borrow Charlie Pierce's phrase). If new legislation isn't signed until, say, January 17, it's not going to have huge lasting impact.

Luke, it's not a matter of names, but certainly the group that got together after the first election of President Obama and said our only goal is to make him a one term president would fit the bill. The tea party would fit the bill. These to me are the obvious, but I'm sure there is enough sin on the other side to go around. I don't trust Nancy Pelosi too much either.

Joel, I think you're right. What you say is what they tend to say on the Closing Bell. If I understand it correctly where really going back to what was in place during the Clinton administration, which also indicates that it's more of a fiscal slope than a fiscal cliff.

Luke --Thanks for the information.I still don't understand what the House Republicans think they're going to gain by putting off making a deal. Don't they realize that people will hold them totally responsible if they don't make some kind of deal? Or is there something else operating in there decision-making process, or non-process?

Ann:what's operating in their decision-making process is their constituencies, who worry that if this country does not start reducing its humongous budget deficits, it's going to blow. The fiscal cliff was "put in place" intentionally as a very crude way to do that. Obama's proposals (to raise a relatively small amount of money by raising taxes on rich people without making ANY serious spending cuts, essentially) are predicated on the fact that cutting spending now would reduce economic growth, and that viceversa when the economy starts growing fiscal problem will be easier to solve.While that sounds reasonable to many people, the truth is that there is a certain level of indebtedness (some studies have set it at 90% of GDP, which is more or lesss where we are now) after which the excessive debt itself prevents the economic growth that should fix it. And in fact, four years of stimulus and humongous public deficits (over a trillion $ a year under Obama) do not seem to have produced much growth. If that's the case, Obama's policy of not cutting spending will just lead to a bond market dislocation or major inflation.Essentially, that is the fear of the House Republicans.The

I can't believe this useless crowd all just shutdown for the holidays leaving this mess unresolved.

Carlo -=In other words, it's the Keynesians v. the anti-Keynesians? I doubt that the typical House member understands Keynes. Note: Friedman said from the beginning of that 1T would not be enough to turn the economic ship around. I just don't understand the Republican contempt for math/evidence. Or maybe they just don't undrstand functional systems.

Oops -- make that Krugman.

Ann:in extremely simplified terms, the typical voter of the typical house republican member is afraid that Obama is bankrupting the country. Even simple people can understand that notion, even if they did not read Keynes. You and Obama think that they are more or less "stupid," and that creating trillions of dollars of debt (not just one, one per year, and just in debt, not overall spending) will "turn the economic ship around).As for me, I am not so sure. But I will not be too surprised if it turns out that the "smart" people and the "experts" are actually stupid. Or, sometimes, mendacious....

Carlo --That may be what they think, but they don't understand how a capitalist system works. What they don't understand is that the only way to reverse a recession is to have the government or some other entity with cash pump it into the economy to jump-start it. When there isn't enough money in circulation for the economy to grow, that inevitably causes economic stagnation. IN fadt there is money out there to invest -- banks, private equity, some corportaiont have extra dough handy, but they aren't investing the way a good capitalist understands he should because they're too chicken to risk their money in a recession. (I read not too long ago that avilable money totals around 7 trillian dollars, more than enough to get the capital moving again.) The debt is not an immediate problem because our credit is still quite good, though not as good as it used to be, and it will be worse if Congress doesn't act soon.. The big problem will face us in a matter of years, but it is so very big that if we don't get the money moving again, then our system will indeed collapse.

Carlo --I don't think most people are stupid (though some are). I think that most people have not had to learn basic economics, and there are some economists who are so paralyzed intellectually by their ideology that they cannot face the fact that Keynes was right about something, viz. how recessions work and how to get out o them. (By the way, Keynes and Hayek knew and respected each others work. Not so the ideologues.) You seem to think that knowing what bankruptcy is and that the country could go bankrupt is understanding all we need to know about economics. But it's far, far from enough. Economics is extremely complex, and it requires understanding of how a functional process works. I'm using the word functionl here in the logical/mathematical sense. By that I mean a process in which a small change or an apparently count-intuitive change can have an ultimately huge and/or surprising effect. See "the butterfly effect" in astronomy. The notion of "tipping points" refers to such changes some functional systems, e.g., economics.

Apparently the typical GOP voter is now having 2nd thoughts. Obama has a 57% approval rating right now, up 7% since the elections.

It wouldn't surprise me a bit if no deal gets done and we go over the cliff. The rightmost parts of the Right will not settle for anything less than a fundamental shift in government spending behavior.The leftmost parts of the Left are in favor of the major outcomes of going over the cliff: higher taxes and significant cuts in military spending.

Ann:you asked about Republican voters. I have to admit that, even if I have a PhD in Mathematics and many years of experience both as a theoretical physicist and as a university math professor, I have never heard of a "functional process." Whatever that is, as a professional scientist I can assure you most of us hesitate to put as much faith in economics as a "science" as you seem to do. Specifically, the idea that trere is a scientific way to get out of a recession, and that Keynes discovered it, sounds very questionable. So far, it is certainly not working.

Carlo --As a math teacher you have undoubtedly heard the word "function" used in a non-teleological sense. Think mathematical and logical functions. Physical processes are expressed in mathematical or partially mathmatical formulae all the time. Chemical equations, for instance, include reactants on the left and the product(s) on the right, and they express the beginnings and ends of chemical processes. These changes depend on the values/quantities of their parts/elements/"arguments" in the functional sense. Economic are functional systems which economists do their best to express in mathematical terms. But there are so many variables that it is impossible to get all the data needed to have truly adequate formula. (Keynes was particularly well aware of this problem.) Econ does have a few statements of probabilities that seem to hold in most circumstances, however. For instance, when money is invested in new enterprises jobs are increased, and when there are more jobs there are more earnings which can be taxed. Some conservative economists, however, seem to deny those principles when confronted with a recession. True, it is counter-intuitive to say that when we have spent too much money we need to spend more money to get out of debt. But this is not exactly what the Keynesians are saying. They are saying that more money must be spend now and more taxes paid later to get out of debt.

Ann:yes, I am quite familiar with Keynesian theory. This whole discussion was about the fact that you seemed to think that whoever doubts it (like the house republicans) is some kind of ignoramus who denies established scientific knowledge. I was trying to point out that, exactly because economic systems are very complicated, there is room for intelligent people to have completely different views from yours without being complete idiots.

Carlo ==It is rational to disagree at times, especially about probabilities involving complex issues. What gets me about so many conservatives is that they don't even seem to know what Keynes' arguments are. I'm no economist, but there seems to be a great deal of evidence that while Keynes hasn't proven right about everything, his explanations of the causes and cures of recessions have held up remarkably well. See Robert Skidelsky's "Keynes: The Return of the Master"As for trying a Keynesian stimulus, that has yet to happen. Krugman has been saying since Obama took office that the amount of the stimulus was much too small to do much good. And it seems he was right -- Keynes hasn't really been tried.

Ann:I think you too would benefit from reading some of the people on the other side. I have systematically tried to read authors on both sides, and I find the anti-Keynesian side much more convincing.But in any case, to go back to the original discussion, my point was that you are too quick to expect the little people to sacrifice their commonsense because the "experts" tell them to do so.

Carlo --I've tried Hayek, but I don't find him enlightening on the subject.As to "common sense", too often one person's common sense is another's nonsense. I do know that I myself am terrible at arithmetic, and a very little person in that regard. And I know better than to try to balance my check book. Would you trust "the little people"s common sense about the parallels postulate? I bet not.

Carlo --OK. What's a nice easy book that explains the conservative economists. If it's big on math it's not for me. While you recommending reading, do you know a nice easy book that explains how the bond market works? I never understand that stuff.

"The leftmost parts of the Left are in favor of the major outcomes of going over the cliff: higher taxes and significant cuts in military spending."That's a little sad if that's the the "leftmost" part of the left: expiration of the Bush tax cuts and reduction in military spending. Pretty modest goals; hardly radical.

Ann:if you like history, I would recommend "The Forgotten Man: A New History of The Great Depression" by Amity Schlaes as an indirect critique of the belief that the government (in that case, FDR) can sustainably manufacture economic growth. Krugman hated the book, and said that it proves nothing because " Fiscal stimulus was unsuccessful not because it does not work, but because it was not tried."Incidentally, this is one of the things that makes me suspicious about Krugman: it seems that no matter how huge are the amounts of money the government spends, it's never enough stimulus....

Luke @ 12/21/2012 - 5:03 pmAnd if everyone agreed to simply ignore the 3 parts and keep life as is until there is an agreement that can be proposed, passed, and signed off by POTUS, none of that would happen. If all parties agree to ignore something, then it won't happen.

Carlo --Thanks for the recommendation, but Krugman is right. The economy in the depression was helped somewhat by the CCC, etc., but not enough. We didn't get out of the depression until WW II when we started spending massive amounts on the war effort. That was an unfortunate sort of way to end the depression, but an ill wind . . .

This is a most fascinating discussion and I have been reading along with interest. There are merits to both sides of the economic disucssion. I am woefully ignorant of economics but from a personal point of view, I have been in mountainous debt and less in debt. I can tell you that the latter feels much, much better. Living within your means is a pretty good dictum. Obviosuly, a certain amount of debt will always be required (e.g. mortgage and vehicle payment) but if you can keep these to a manageable amount that is good. It means sacrificing some other goods and this is always a trade off but choices need to be made for one's long term betterment. This same principle should be able to be applied to managing a national economy; whatever that means in practice!On the point of the original post, FWIW, I always find the blame game amusing. It is like a dysfunctional marriage and family. Someone is always to blame and when you are in it, you are simply unable to see what those on the outside clearly see. This is why third party counselling and mediation is useful. The third party was supposed to be these debt commissions with people from both sides of the ideological spectrum but who are not beholden to partisan interests. How many debt commissions has the US had! If the reccommendations are not going to be followed, why waste energy and money on them?And that applies to BOTH the administration and the house..The US government was designed not to function like a parliament in which members were not free to vote against their leaders. They were supposed to represent their constituents as well as their own convictions. So, I do not see this as a systemic failure on the part of House. Boehner was not able to find a consensus position (that would include some Democrats - apparently Democrats in the House have not contributed to the problem). EQUALLY!!!. the Whitehouse was not able to find a consensus position that would satisfy Republicans. It takes a special kind of leadership to govern in a minority government or divided government. But Obama is the leader and his job is to broker consensus legislation.One of the most moving things that I heard Obama say in his acceptance speech was that it was time to start worrying about the American people's job and stop worrying about our own. Get to it Mr. President.

George --I know very little about parliamentary systems, but sometimes it seems that it has advantages over the U,S. system of coalitions of vested interests.Care to comment on the subject?

Hi Ann:I am not sure one system is better than the other and of course each has its advantages. In a parliamentary system, for example, it would have been far easier for Obama to get the ceiling deal in his last term and the so called "Plan B" this time. The reason for this is because, when it comes to budgetary matters, straight party line votes is required of all members. That means if the leader supports an initiative the party members must vote for it. The Republcan members would have been required to support Boehner.Leaders, therefore, have full power in negotiations and this is clearly and advantage. The leaders who are in the talks know the inside and out of the proposed legislation better than anybody else. They are aware of the nuances and the "informal" deals that are made. Consequently, I have no problem with party line votes for certain clearly defined legislation.On the other hand, having strict party line vote requirements makes "back benchers" irrelevant in the process. Trudeau once (in)famously referred to them as "nobodies". I believe strongly in allowing members to have as many free votes as possible (e.g. being able to vote against the party without being punished in all matters EXCEPT budgetary ones).This happened in the gay marriage vote. As I recall most parties with the exception of the NDP made this vote a free vote. In Britain, during the lead up to the Iraq war I believe Tony Blair made authorizing military a free vote as well.But sometimes members are punished unneccesarily for not follow the party and leaders use the whip for every kind of legislation. I see this as unhealthy for a democracy and does not allow the members to represent their constituencies effectively.

George --Fascinating. How do the leaders enforce these "free votes"? How is it determined which votes will be free? That's an entirely unknown concept here, I'd say (Fatoid: in a Montreal parliamentary election Pierre Trudeau defeated the eminent philosopher/social theorist Charles Taylor.)

Hi AnnI knew Taylor was from Montreal but did not know about his being defeated by Trudeau. C'est domage!? (I liked Taylor's book "A Secular Age" although I did not read it cover to cover!). Trudeau was also deeply influenced bye the Benedictines and Dominicans but his significant Catholic formation is unknown to a lot of Canadians.As for which votes will be free, that is a pretty arbitrary decision. Most leaders promise greater free votes during election time but few deliver during crunch time.Actually, my local MP who I supported left the NDP, in part, for being disciplined for not following the party on supporting the long gun registry. Hunting is popular up here and many hunting and fishing lodge owners were against it. The registry was a bureaucratic nightmare. I don't think even law enforcement supported it. in this mostly rural ridings, citizens overwhelmingly were opposed to it.This actually sparked a national debate in the CBC on the very issue of free votes. There is no reason, why an issue such as this, required a party line vote in my mind. But the party leaders felt that it did. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/11/02/ndp-mp-long-gun-resgistry..., Bruce left the party. He will run as an independent next time arounds but I am not sure how that is going to work for him. The party usually pays for signs, organization, etc. Here was his statement. http://www.tbnewswatch.com/news/204745/Leaving-the-partyI have much respect for most Members in this House. But our three main parties require lockstep discipline, with little room for meaningful public debate... or for putting constituents ahead of party politics. Instead of cooperation and compromise, voters often see mindless solidarity, where political parties are always right and voters are always wrong. One example is the long gun registry, where there has been no real compromise at all. Mr. Mulcair has made it clear he will bring back the long gun registry, and will use the whip. I am also concerned that Mr. Mulcair does not seem willing to co-operate with other parties on issues. And on climate change, parties are hopelessly locked to Cap & Trade or outright inaction, making compromise to achieve even piecemeal progress impossible.

How do the party leaders discipline the members -- withhold party campaign funds? For how many years are you House members elected? The 2-year elections here are, I think, one of the great failures of our system. They're constantly out trying to raise money for re=election and too often take support from people they shouldn't deal with.

Discipline can range anywhere from not appointing members to committees, not permitting them to ask questions in the House of Commons for a time. Other ones can include being expelled from the caucus or banned from running under the party banner. So they can withold funds by expelling someone or forcing them to sit as an independent. The prime minister may call an election at any time. There is a maximum of five years that he or she can wait and a minimum of, I believe, two years. There is then no fixed schedule as in the US. I believe that campaigns are publicly and privately funded and there are rules but I am not up on all of that. There does not seem to be the same concern over money in the system as in the US. People and corporations can and do contribute to political parties. It is probbably structured more like the RNC and DNC who provide funds to candidates based on likelihood of winning or desirability of seats.

Thanks, George. Sounds like a system that is much more sensitive to people's opinion than the U. S. one, while at the same time it seems guaranteed to get something done. It seems to me that our system has three major faults. 1) Congrespersons have to run every two years, 2) the re-districting process allows the party in power to drawn lines very unfairly, and 3) United made it possible for the super-rich, and others, to give anonymous. Changing 1) and 3) would require constitutional amendments :-(

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About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.