Monday, January 7, 2013

Congress and the cliff over the ceiling

FRIDAY, THE 113th Congress of the United States formally began its first full day in session, and made a huge demographic statement just by showing up. The new Congress begins with 101 women in Congress (20 in the United States Senate, an all-time record); and 43 new African American members, 31 new Latino members, 12 new Asian members, 16 veterans from the Iraq or Afghan wars, the first Hindu member of Congress, and seven LGBT Americans.

The 113th, the most diverse in the history of the United States, replaces the 112th, by any yardstick of achievement the most useless Congress of the last 60-odd years. But for the new Republican kids in the House on the Hill, the first order of business will be developing a strategy for the battle over the nation’s $16.4 trillion debt ceiling, a fight already ramping up in earnest. Nothing like starting your job doing the last of someone else’s.

They’ll have help. The old Republican guard — Graham of South Carolina, Cornyn of Texas, McConnell of Kentucky — has already laid down a marker: Give us what we want or the economy gets it. Americans generally, and lawmakers and businesspeople, have said this old approach of threatening to shut down the government if Republican demands aren’t satisfied isn’t what’s needed now. So did President Obama.

So did Newt Gingrich. The GOP’s presumptive theoretician had harsh words for House Speaker John Boehner, and the Republican leadership in general. “They’ve got to find, in the House, a totally new strategy,” Gingrich said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday.

“Everybody’s now talking about, ‘Oh, here comes the debt ceiling.’ I think that’s, frankly, a dead loser. Because in the end, you know it’s gonna happen. The whole national financial system is going to come in to Washington and on television, and say: ‘Oh my God, this will be a gigantic heart attack, the entire economy of the world will collapse. You guys will be held responsible.’ And they’ll cave.”

“He can’t keep thinking the way he’s thought the last few months without having a disaster on his hands,” Gingrich said.

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THIS THINKING that Gingrich warned of is apparently contagious. It proceeds from a view held by other Republican lawmakers that it’s not only OK to shut down the federal government of the United States, but that it’s also something worthy of being scheduled, of being a regular, ordinary thing — the disaster that’s predictable.

Matt Salmon, the Republican congressman from Arizona, was the latest. On CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, talking like he was part of the Clinton administration, Salmon tried to give the Republicans credit for the boom years under that Democratic president, by using the same eleventh-hour technique he said should be used again in 2013. He told Bob Schieffer that “it’s about time” for a government shutdown.

You can argue with Salmon’s train-timetable tolerance for government at the precipice, but there’s a brittle truth to the essential thrust of his thinking. Like a date with the hangman, the threat of a government shutdown tends to concentrate the congressional mind wonderfully. It did in the 1990’s; it took that threat to finally distill the differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic policy into something politically navigable for both parties — and to great effect: a $230 billion surplus when Bill Clinton left office.

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But this time, the threat of a government shutdown comes under different circumstances, something the former president noted on MSNBC in September 2011. “If the economy had been strong, the debt-ceiling fight might have established the limits," Clinton said. “But with the economy weak, the president could not responsibly allow the debt ceiling not to be raised. Because we had to honor our credit. You couldn't let everybody's interest rates go up in this country, as bad as it is now.”

The Republicans are using an old tool to deal with a new problem. And the looming debt-ceiling debate comes amid the persistent strength of the Tea Party variant of the GOP, a group whose zero-sum-game approach to politics has been and will be one that accepts opposition, not compromise, as its main animating principle.

The Tea Party crew didn’t come to Washington to find common ground; they came to Washington to scorch the earth. And that’s the problem. It’s hard as hell to do business with people who insist on not doing business with you.

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YOU HAVE TO wonder how many in the Republican freshman class are really ready to sign on to the same obstructionist tactics practiced by the people they replace. Especially given the public’s current view of Congress.

The Huffington Post, reporting on a new HuffPost/YouGov poll found that “61 percent of Americans think that the 112th Congress accomplished less than usual, while 20 percent say it accomplished about the same as usual and only 3 percent say that it accomplished more than usual. Those perceptions appear to match up with reality. According to data from the House Clerk's Office and recently reported by HuffPost, the 112th Congress passed fewer bills than any Congress since at least the 1940s.”

It’s politically counter-intuitive, to say the least, to think that a class of freshman congressmen and women would jump at the chance to adopt the same intransigence, to make their new congressional relationship with the American people as bad as, or worse than, the one that came before. It sends the wrong signal to walk in the door assuming a worst-case outcome of negotiations that haven’t even started yet.

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Some on the right get that, understand how a government shutdown would reflect poorly on their public image, and cause chaos for the economy they claim to champion. David Cote, the chairman and CEO of Honeywell and a Republican, said as much in a New York Times interview published Jan. 2:

“You don’t put the full faith and credit of the United States’ finances at risk,” he said. “The whole idea of using debt ceiling that way or saying ‘I’ll do this horrible thing to all of us unless you give in’ just doesn’t make any sense for anybody. It makes me very nervous. It’s not a smart way to run the country.”

“I urge our leaders to get back to the table as soon as possible, put politics aside, and work out a plan that will truly help to expand the U.S. economy over the long term. We cannot give up now, that’s not how a great nation acts,” he said.

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THE RISKS to the economy aren’t theoretical. On Wednesday, Moody’s, the rating agency that has warned of a credit downgrade, laid down a marker of its own, saying that the conflict expected over the debt-ceiling limit could drive down its current AAA rating for American debt. Standard & Poor’s took that step in August 2011.

“We’re in for another round of brinkmanship and uncertainty,” said Mark Zandi, Moody’s chief economist, to The New York Times. “I don’t think the economy can really find its footing and jump to a higher level of growth until we get to the other side of this.”

On Monday, the 113th Congress starts its first full week in session, doing the people’s business. With the debt-ceiling fight first up, to be followed by pitched battles over the sequester and the budget resolution, the new Congress could do worse than keep in mind what former president Bill Clinton observed on MSNBC in September 2011. “What works best in politics is clear, sharp conflict … what works best in real life is cooperation.”

A lot’s riding on how, and how well, the 113th Congress bridges those two extremes. Or tries to.

Image credits: 113th Congress group photo: Salmon: "Face the Nation," CBS News. Mark Wilson/Getty Images. Moody's logo: © 2013 Moody's Analytics.

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