Considering that most of the wheeling and dealing involved in government goes on behind closed doors, more likely than not most of what we Americans hear and see playing out in the media is maneuvering.
These P.R. battles seem to provide politicians the ability to “throw some red meat” to their respective bases of support. While die-hard supporters are stoked up and sending warm fuzzies their way, politicians have time to continue wrangling for deals behind the scenes, while also buying some time to gauge overall public opinion.
In such instances, it’s helpful to launch a trial balloon or two.
In the present P.R. battle, which a lot of media have dubbed “the debt ceiling show down”, as if it were a pay-per-view wrestling match, D.C. types ranging from the President and the Treasury Secretary to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House John Boehner have floated one or more trial balloons to see how the public will react.
It seems fair to say that the first balloons in this round of “the show down” were launched by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in a May 13th letter to Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who serves on the Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (archived).
As visualized in the graphic (above, right), Geithner’s letter used some very apocalyptic language. Columnist James Pethokoukis aptly labeled Geithner’s rhetoric “scare tactics” in a May 16th editorial which also demonstrated just how full of hot air Geithner was (and still is) on at least one important point1:
Geithner says if the debt limit is not increased, the U.S. will default on its debts.
Interest expense during the twelve month period through April 2011 was $213.1 billion while revenues for the same period were $2.27 trillion
Seems like we could make those interest payments, doesn’t it?
If we can make the interest payments on our debts, it seems a little strange that we would have the amount of interest raised on our debt, so that argument is also full of hot air.
The issue of market stability is a bit more complex2, but, if we focus specifically on markets in the context of the debt ceiling, and potential effects of a protracted debate, it’s important to note that the only thing unusual at present is that there is far more money involved in the overall debt limit, than in the many, many times in the past the matter was debated.
A July 1, 2011 Congressional Research Service brief entitled “The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases” shows that Congress has gone through periods of lengthy debate many times in the past. Most of the more protracted debates have occurred in the past decade. Somehow we avoided a catastrophic market crash every time.
So, Geithner’s third trial balloon appears to be as full of hot air as the other two.
But the sky seems filled with such balloons these days. Politicians, administration officials, and talking head advocates, whether Democrat or Republican, are launching new ones every day. And nearly every one of these ideas is nothing more than hot air.
Of course, Democrats and their balloons deserve a hail of darts because they are so absurd. I didn’t have the the time to make all of the goofy looking balloon graphics I could have. For instance, I didn’t create any for ideas launched at Harry Reid’s Thursday, July 14, press conference, which included “Student Loans in Danger!” and “Corporate Jets!”. I think the jets reference was the now-standard Democratic dose of class warfare, but since it was literally injected by Reid as an epithet, absent anything like context or proper grammar, I can’t be sure3.
I also don’t have any balloons here which detail the scary things Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer (archived link) prophesied in a separate conference with some very impressive display boards . Schumer listed public safety and education among other government programs in dire peril if there is not a debt limit increase.
In other words, Reid and Schumer are doing what Democrats (and, far too many Republicans) always do when ever finally confronted with the ghastly prospect of actually having to make cuts to government spending. They go for the emotional hot buttons.
This game has become so old, watching politicians do it seems like a lampoon of the real thing. The only thing worth noting this round is that the Democrats seemed to be signalling near-panic last week. City-level politicians talk about the perils of budget cuts with more finesse. (Just ask anyone paying attention in Lincoln or Omaha.)
Likely the beginnings of panic were most evident in the fact that the President was willing to jump so quickly to threatening to withhold Social Security checks. He barely equivocated. I don’t think there’s even room for a “Let me be clear”.
Scaring old folks, mentioning the children, public safety, and throwing out nonsensical epithets is, again, worth noting. But it makes the fact that the worst trial balloons floated so far have been of a bipartisan nature even more frustrating if you believe that the budget and size of government needs a hatchet and not “a scalpel”.
Unfortunately, we’ve all been given many glimpses of exactly what we could expect out of the Republican leadership in Congress, going back years, but I’ll use an example that is very recent.
Following the mid-term elections in November, there was a lame duck session. Speaker-to-be Boehner, et al, made a big show about fighting over serious budget cuts. It didn’t take long to discover that the whole unnecessary exercise was a bunch of smoke and mirrors via some funky accounting tricks. All that came out of it was a big boondoggle piece of legislation that did nothing more than embed two more years of uncertainty into our limping economy.
At the time, Boehner and others talked a great deal about how the real fight would happen over the looming debt ceiling increase. But, it seems like it would be difficult for Boehner to bargain effectively regarding the debt as he began signalling a willingness to increase the limit even before the lame duck session, using language that seems very similar to Geithner’s today. A November 2010 Wall Street Journal article, for instance, notes:
“But on Thursday, Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) said he’s been talking to the newly elected GOP lawmakers about the need to raise the federal debt ceiling when it comes up early next year.”
A June 1 story on Politico reported:
“And Boehner, for the first time, said he wants to raise the limit within one month’s time.
‘I just think we’re now in June, this really needs to be done over the next month if we’re serious about no brinksmanship, no rattling investors.’”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Boehner was reportedly on the brink of making “a grand bargain” with President Obama, which the Wall Street Journal labeled “Boehner’s Obama Gamble”, that would have made very significant cuts to spending but was also accompanied by tax increases. Boehner pulled out of the talks soon after, reportedly due to the blow back he received.
But the Obama – Boehner talks were only one set among many; throughout the past couple of months, there have been “bipartisan” talks within one of those Congressional Gangs, this time it was the “Gang of Six”, which included South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham. And prior to Obama – Boehner, there was a set of talks led by Vice President Joe Biden.
None of these talks seem to have gotten anywhere, as they should not, because there was no consensus behind them. But that fact hasn’t necessarily put a true end to any of them. A perusal of daily news reveals that each one of the various “talks” has been reconstituted in the past few days, in one form or another.
Here’s a crazy idea: how about we try an actual legislative process for a change? A real one, where all the Congressmen and Senators are all in their respective seats in their chambers, where they actually write and introduce legislation and then have a full and open debate about it on the floor. Let’s chuck out all of the “deals”, “talks” and “Gangs”.
Beyond the very gruesome way “sausage gets made” these days, I’m still scratching my head regarding why Republicans bother to sit around a table with most of the Democrats in an effort to forge any deal, but, especially in the present case.
Burst all the absurd balloons and call all of the absurd bluffs.
Let it be President Obama who sticks with his green jobs program, unspent stimulus dollars, health care law, and high speed rail instead of interest payments, ensuring our military is taken care of, and social security checks. Let the President and his helpers talk on and on about just exactly how they would go about eating the rich.
Let them own it.
If Republicans had ANY spine whatsoever, they would have let the government shut down a few months ago. But they lost their nerve. For once and for all, let’s see which government programs are a complete waste of money and resources and just how long we can live without them or let the Democrats hang themselves on their own ropes.
But, apparently Republican officials are just as eager as Democrats to avoid letting Americans see just how much government we do not need. Perhaps it’s just that they are so scared of blow back, a sort of PPTSD (Political Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), from the Gingrich – Clinton shut down.
Whichever of these phenomenon is at work, or a combination of the two, Republicans are, as usual, in the process of handing their supposed opposition a victory. Again.
Within the past two weeks, as it was becoming more apparent that Republicans were under increased pressure from a more vigilant and vocal public, the White House was reportedly considering how it could get around Congress. Which clause of the Constitution might President Obama pervert for the purpose of raising the debt ceiling? The talk included, most strangely, the 14th Amendment.
Likely, Section 4. of the 14th, the introductory phrase, was scrutinized for loopholes:
“Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.“
This may be the most insane maneuver floated as a trial balloon to date.
Of course the 14th Amendment was written for purposes specifically pertaining to post-Civil War issues. Quite obviously, the debt issue was raised regarding obligations of Confederate states coming back into the Union.
It’s use at present would require the language be taken entirely out of context. But, most importantly, it would be a complete subversion of core constitutional principles, violating the separation of powers.
Law making is a Legislative function. The key phrase in the 14th’s Section 4.:
“authorized by law”
The President has no authority to make law affecting expenditures. Congress is the authorizing entity.
Fortunately, this hair-brained scheme didn’t seem to have any lift off. But, unfortunately, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell injected it full of his own hot air.
As an openly professed political maneuver, McConnell proposed granting authority to the President of the United States to raise the debt ceiling limit. In this way, McConnell noted, the President would own responsibility for raising the limit. Brilliant!4. Otherwise, he should do Americans a big favor and hush up.
But, apparently that’s not going to happen; he’s so busy talking in the last few days, he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth. On Saturday, July 16, a McConnell editorial was published in USA Today wherein the Senator sounded down right limited government-like:
“The simplest way to view the debt ceiling debate in Washington is as a struggle over the kind of government we want. If you want a government that runs everything from the student loan business to car companies, then taxes will have to go up. If you think government is too big already and should start to pull back, then Washington has to change its ways — fast.”
Near the conclusion, the Senator stated:
“If the White House is not willing to work with us, then we will go around it and directly to the people.”
Really? In between all of the hoo-haa-for-smaller-government stuff, McConnell reported:
“That’s why I have proposed a last-resort plan that would take default off the table as Republicans continue to press the White House for meaningful cuts and reforms.”
I, for one am wondering how the Senator proposes there would be an iota’s worth of bargaining power left if he aids and abets subversion of the Constitution thereby setting the precedent for empowering the President to engage in a Legislative branch function while handing the President the power to raise the debt limit?
Sunday, July 17 at midnight, Bloomberg reported that McConnell is on board with Harry Reid and Dick Durbin to push through a Senate measure that would hand the power to the President to increase the debt ceiling.
“’The good news is that Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Mitch McConnell are sitting down and working out an approach that we are going to try to tackle this week,’” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ yesterday.“
Good news IF you’re an inside-the-Beltway spending junkie who is freaked out because you don’t know where the next hit of money is coming from. Apparently, the Speaker of the House is feeling a bit strung out himself; he’s said McConnell’s proposal should remain on the table.
Time to BURST the trial balloons of McConnell, Obama, Geithner, Boehner, Reid, and on and on and on. This is an issue worth taking the time to contact our elected officials about. Time for them to get on record where they stand. Ask some tough questions. Be firm but polite.
All of these trial balloons are leading us in the wrong direction.
The irony in the present situation is that there should be some apocalyptic language used in the present debate, but not by Democrats. We’re not in danger of defaulting on our interest payments while a debt ceiling debate occurs or if we don’t eat the rich.
We are in danger of defaulting if we keep increasing the amount of our spending and debt, and an unfortunately long list of many other stupid things we’ve been doing.
The political games need to stop, very soon, because the resulting explosion will be a lot louder and uglier than a balloon full of hot air.
Graphics included here are all, with the exception of one, the result of conglomerating and editing varies images from several free / public domain sites including Pulsar Wallpapers, CDN Daily Clipart formerly/http://cdn.dailyclipart.net/wp-content/uploads/medium/Birthday7.jpg, WP Clipart, and others.
Source of dollar value chart: formerly/http://pricedingold.com/us-dollar/
For a perspective on value of the dollar this year, see also “The U.S. Dollar in 2011”
- Regarding Pethokoukis’ editorial, I do take issue with some of the information he used to refute Geithner’s claims. Pethokoukis accepts the premise that higher than expected tax revenues in April are proof of an economic recovery. There are simply too many other factors which refute the idea of recovery. Further, in refuting the point about market reactions, Pethokoukis overlooks some important points. ↩
- Regarding market stability, the specter of market crashes have been used as bludgeons in ongoing fashion as justification for government intervention. The hard reality is, the markets are far, far overdue for serious correction. ↩
- Note that the press conference video to which I linked, like other news stories I perused about the conference, make no note of the “Corporate Jets! epithet” I mentioned. I can only report that I watched it live on Thursday afternoon ↩
- Obviously, Mitch McConnell doesn’t care about giving away legislative authority to the executive branch. This seems to be an institutional jealousy issue. What he proposes would actually undercut the House of Representatives. See footnote number 5 for the necessary background.
Republicans could become the political equivalent of Pontius Pilate.
If Senator McConnell has some amendments to propose once a debt ceiling bill is sent to the Senate, according to our system, that’s the time for him to weigh in[5. Article I. Section 7. states: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.” While the issue of whether the Constitutional language mentioning “raising Revenue” includes appropriation of funds has been a subject of debate, the House of Representatives has consistently refused to accept any appropriations bills from the U.S. Senate. Read more in the Legislative functions section of this Wikipedia article. ↩
Shelli Dawdy is first and foremost the mother of three children whom she has taught at home via the classical method since removing her children from school in 2001. During her early years as a homeschool mother, she worked part-time as a freelance writer. Born and raised in the Iowa, Shelli and her husband moved to the state of South Dakota in 1997, attracted to its more limited government and friendly tax environment. In 2006, Shelli and her family relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska, when her husband’s employer offered a new position. She took a break from work and politics for a time, recognizing the need to focus solely on her childrens’ schooling with two now of high school age. Distressed by many things she was witnessing on the national political scene and disillusioned about the Republican Party, she decided to start writing again, this time online. Motivated to get involved with others at the grassroots level, she networked with activists on the social media tool, Twitter. She was involved in organizing the first tea party rallies inspired by Rick Santelli’s “rant” on CNBC in February 2009. Recognizing that activism should generate on the local level, she founded Grassroots in Nebraska in March of 2009. The group’s mission is a return to Constitutional, limited government, according to its original meaning. While the group has held several tea party rallies, it’s focus is to take effective action. Among its many projects, GiN successfully coordinated testimony for the hearing of the Nebraska Sovereignty Resolution, networked with other groups to ensure a large show of public support at the hearing, and coordinated follow up support to ensure its passage in April 2010. While working to build up GiN throughout 2009, she was asked to work as writer and producer of the documentary film, A New America, which lays out how Progressivism is responsible for how America has moved away from its Constitutional roots. You can see more of her work on Grassroots in Nebraska (GiN) and StubbornFacts