Muted Celebration

This Wonkblog post makes a good point, and it’s the reason that the proposed deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling is merely a cause for relief,  not necessarily celebration:

The mistake Republicans made was thinking that what worked from them in 2011 was simply the hostage taking. What worked for them in 2011 was winning in 2010. What made 2013 impossible was that they’d lost in 2012.

But Republicans should feel good about one thing: This process has been a reminder of how powerful that 2011 deal was and remains for them. Democrats are agreeing to fund the government at a level far beneath what they consider acceptable. Over the weekend, it became clear that Democrats are genuinely worried about sequestration’s 2014 cuts, which trigger on January 15th (the Senate deal is designed so the government funding runs out just as the new cuts trigger — which is to say, its timed to make the next fight a fight over sequestration.)

As Grover Norquist told me, with his characteristic understatement, “Sequester is the big win. It defines the decade.” (my emphasis)

Basically, what we are looking at this morning is a deal to avert disaster and put things back on the less disastrous but still basically terrible path we were on. The agreement (if the House goes along) still leads to diminishing funding for adult education and other federal discretionary programs for many years down the road.

The Perpetual Budget Crisis

Friends of mine who only vaguely follow the federal budget process (i.e. normal people) sometimes ask me why the government seems to be in perpetual crisis mode regarding the budget, debt ceiling etc. This blog post from Jared Bernstein offers several suggestions that make sense to me:

How Did It Come to This?

That’s an important question that I’ll largely leave to political scientists.  Someone the other day suggested that once Congressional leaders could no longer dole out earmarks to members of their caucus, they lost an important disciplinary tool—“break with your leaders and you won’t get that bridge!”  The political scientists I’ve asked about this say, “maybe,” but the Hill vets tend to put a lot of weight on this explanation.

I’ve argued that wealth concentration has interacted with money in politics such that folks like the Koch’s can buy the politics they—not the parties’ leaders funded by establishment money—want (they can also buy the “think tanks” to explain why they’re right [sic]).

And, as budget expert Maya MacGuineas noted the other day on a panel we were on together, don’t underestimate the damage done by not having a budget.  All this fiscal patchwork—“continuing resolutions”—means there’s never a lasting agreement on receipts and outlays that both sides have hammered out together.  That creates endless oxygen for the renegades to get their crazy on.

Finally, it really does seem to be the case that the obstructionists are doing the bidding of their constituents.  One House R was quoted in the paper the other day saying, essentially: the folks back in my district would rather see me work to shut down the government and default on the debt then compromise.  And I’m gonna listen to them, not Boehner and Cantor.

I might add one more: it appears that the people doing the negotiating really don’t like each other very much.

Two Points About the Debt Ceiling and Spending Cuts

I don’t know why some people claim that Republicans won’t get specific about the things they would cut from the federal budget. I was glad to see Robert Greenstein address this in the commentary I referenced earlier today:

Some Democrats dismiss the threat that the Boehner rule poses, saying that Republicans ultimately will back off of it because they won’t publicly identify the specific program cuts they would make to produce the savings that would raise the debt ceiling for a reasonable period of time. That view, alas, is mistaken.

To be sure, Republican congressional leaders seem unwilling to propose specific cuts in the two main, popular middle-class entitlement programs — Medicare and Social Security — that would produce large savings over the next ten years. They want Democrats to propose such cuts, or at a minimum, they want to find a way to put some Democratic fingerprints on them.

But, Republican leaders appear more than willing to specify deep cuts in two other parts of the budget — core entitlements for low-income Americans, like Medicaid and SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), and the annual caps on funding for non-defense discretionary programs. The Ryan budget featured trillions of dollars of cuts in these two areas. House Republicans may well try to pass legislation in February to raise the debt limit for a year or so, accompanied by cuts primarily in low-income assistance programs and in the caps on non-defense discretionary programs. They will likely re-pass, in the new Congress, the legislation that they passed twice in the last Congress (most recently on December 20) to cancel the first year of sequestration and replace it with spending cuts that hit low-income programs disproportionately.

I would add that Republicans have supported a specific proposal to cut social security as well, by proposing to switch to chained CPI.  They almost got this during the last round of negotiations with the President, in fact, and I don’t know why it might not be proposed again.

Second point: Republicans thinks the public overwhelmingly has their back on the so-called “Boehner Rule”—that any increase in the debt limit must be accompanied by massive spending cuts.