Ending the Permanent Crisis

How to Find a Way Out

This has to stop.

Ever since they took control of the House of Representatives in 2011, Republicans have made journeys to the fiscal brink as commonplace as summertime visits to the beach or the ballpark. The country has been put through a series of destructive showdowns over budget issues we once resolved through the normal give-and-take of negotiations.

The old formula held that when government was divided between the parties, the contending sides should try to "meet in the middle." But the current Republican leadership doesn't know the meaning of the word "middle," so intimidated has it become by the tea party.

Here is a way out of permanent crisis: President Obama should demand the repeal of all artificial deadlines and tell both houses of Congress that he won't make further proposals until each actually passes a replacement to the sequester -- not a gimmick or something that looks like an alternative, but the real thing.

With everyone on the record, normal discussions could begin and Washington would no longer look like the set of a horror movie in which a new catastrophe lurks around every corner.

The solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy, so let both houses hold votes on all the potential remedies -- on Obama's own proposal, on packages put forward by Democrats Chris Van Hollen in the House and Patty Murray in the Senate, and on anything the Republicans care to proffer, including the sequester itself.

Let the House Republican majority show it can come up with a substantial alternative or, failing that, allow a plan to pass with a mix of Republican and Democratic votes.

In the Senate, ditch the unconstitutional abuse of the filibuster and let a plan pass by simple majority vote. Misuse of the filibuster is a central cause of Washington's contorted policymaking. Let's end the permanent budget crisis by governing ourselves through the majorities that every sane democracy uses.

The air of establishment Washington is filled with talk that Obama must "lead." But Obama cannot force the House Republican majority to act if it doesn't want to. He is (fortunately) not a dictator. What Obama can do is expose the cause of this madness, which is the dysfunction of the Republican Party.

Journalists don't like saying this because it sounds partisan. But the truth is the truth, whether it sounds partisan or not.

And a staunch conservative has succinctly explained why this problem really is a Republican problem. In an admirably candid interview Monday with Ezra Klein on MSNBC, Ben Domenech, a conservative blogger, said the new tea party Republicans in the House don't want their leadership to sit down with Obama to talk because "they have their doubts about the ability of Republicans to negotiate any better situation."

Read that carefully: We are in this mess because Republicans don't trust their leaders to bargain. Domenech added that many conservatives "don't buy this distinction between smart cuts and dumb cuts," a distinction that is not "all that critical." This is astonishing: Government is bad, so all cuts are more or less the same. And you wonder why we have a crisis?

John Boehner keeps saying that the House has twice voted for ways to replace the sequester. What he doesn't say is that those votes were held in the last Congress, so the bills are dead. If they are so good, why doesn't the speaker bring them up again and pass them now? The answer is almost certainly that he doesn't have the votes. If I'm wrong, Boehner can prove it by calling the question. I'm not worried.

One proposal Republicans are floating would give Obama more flexibility to administer the sequester. Thus, a party that says it can't trust Obama enough to negotiate with him would trust him so much as to grant him exceptional power.

The contradiction is so glaring that Republicans are split on the idea, and it's foolish anyway. As a senior administration official suggested, it's like being told that two of your fingers will be cut off but you could choose which fingers. How is it a "concession" to ask Obama to organize the cuts he says would be a disaster?

The nation is exhausted with fake crises that voters thought they ended with their verdict in the last election. Those responsible for the Washington horror show should be held accountable. And only one party is using shutdowns, cliffs, and debt ceilings as routine political weapons. 

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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Off topic but you did a splendid job explaining the Church's split between progressives and conservatives on Wagner's morning show on MSNBC. {Pope's Leaving]

 I say chances for extensive reform of Curia is 3-1 against.  

There is plenty of evidence of division within the Republican Party, as Dionne writes, and Democrats and Republicans seem utterly incapable of agreeing on anything. We might make progress by acknowledging that, for better or worse, all of these incumbents were elected by us. The President won his re-election on a pledge of higher tax rates for the one percent. That is accomplished, although the top bracket starts at $400K instead of the $250K Obama had proposed. We the People also elected Representatives. Each won on the basis of campaign promises that a majority of voters in that District felt compelling. We created this stalemate by electing a President who pledged higher tax rates for the one percent and a House that, in the majority, pledged "no more revenue" or "we need smaller government", or something similar. As we all learned in sixth grade civics class, the House is the keeper of the federal government purse strings. That protection is secured for us in Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution. Apparently, a lot of voters beyond the "one percent" high-income households invoked that protection when they voted for these Representatives.

How to move forward? Perhaps some leader will emerge who will move the debate to a higher level: real tax reform. That was one proposal of the Simpson-Bowles Commission. Eliminate all the deductions, credits, exemptions, and tax capital income the same as wage income. Then lower the rates for all taxpayers. It might even be possible to have one rate applicable to all income at all levels--one bracket. Pennsylvania's income tax has contained these provisions for decades. Set the rates in the new system to raise the same total amount of revenue, not more, not less. 

Once the American people are satisfied that the tax system is transparent and devoid of special treatments, a real discussion can be had about spending priorities. But the first step is to recognize the reality of the recent election.

Joseph J. Dunn

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