Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Haunted by Hastert

Hail Fellow, Well Fed
So you're shaking your head in outrage and disappointment over the current debt ceiling standoff.  Why, you're asking yourself, would the United Stated Congress be willing to wreck the US economy in order to accomplish changes to budgetary policy they could not achieve through regular democratic means?  How dare American legislators put their own country and constituents at risk rather than simply governing, proposing and negotiating spending bills that can pass both houses and the Presidents pen?

But here's the thing.  If put to a vote, Congress would raise the debt ceiling today.  Clean, with no demands or offsets, because the debt ceiling is an arbitrary limit that leaves the US government in an impossible bind.  On the one hand, legally obligated to spend the money congress has already authorized, yet legally prevented from acquiring that money.  By a large margin, American lawmakers have a clear understanding of where their obligation lies, even if they don't agree on optimal budgetary strategy.  It is only a small number of Republicans, primarily in the House of Representatives, who would impose their extreme ideological will upon their nation under pain of economic destruction.  So why don't they just have a vote, raise (or even eliminate) the debt ceiling in a responsible manner, and move on without all this brinkmanship?

The answer to that question is something called the "Hastert Rule".  Named after former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert, it is simply a political principle that a Republican majority will only allow a bill to come to a vote if it is supported by a majority of Republicans.  Not a majority of Representatives, but a majority of the majority.  That is to say, a bill requiring 218 votes to pass will not be voted on if it would receive 118 Democratic votes and 100 Republican votes.  This effectively allows the most extreme right-wing lunatics in the Lower House to control American policy, giving them veto power over any legislation, even that which would pass both houses easily.

This is the state of American governance today.  Extreme ideological positions held by a small number of lawmakers, supported by the filibuster in the Senate and the Hastert Rule in the House define the political agenda of a nation that doesn't even support that agenda.  They can be resisted, but to do so results in utter gridlock, with no law able to pass beyond resolutions naming Post Offices.  No matter how increasingly dysfunctional, the status quo remains in effect, and no real problem, even those that common sense tells us would be easy to address, can be solved.

And don't forget, in this dysfunctional miasma of unnecessary crises and ideological brinkmanship, we have two additional drop-deadlines in the next 70 days.  First there is the sequester cuts, which can be thought of as an austerity IED.  The cuts are huge, across-the-board broad, completely untargeted and, it should be remembered, were intended to be too painful to ever allow them to come into effect.  Then, on March 27 the Continuing Resolution, the law that funds the government when Congress is incapable of passing a budget, expires.  While the debt ceiling threatens default, and the sequester cuts threaten Eurozone style recession, the CR threatens government shutdown.  There might well be enough pressure on Speaker Boehner to cause him to violate the Hastert Rule (which he already did on the fiscal cliff deal), and lawmakers may well agree to make the sequester cuts go away (half of the cuts are to the military, and who in Congress doesn't love them some military spending?), but even in that best-case scenario, the tea-party nutbags in the House of Representatives are going to insist - that's right, insist - that they be allowed to shut down the United States government.  All while Americans blissfully watch American Idol...


  1. And of course, austerity is the LAST thing we ought to be trying.

    But all the serious people agree on it (just like they agreed that Iraq was a mortal threat to the United States.)

    1. That's true, and the interesting thing is that stimulus would increase GDP, reduce unemployment and raise inflation rates, which most economists agree is exactly what we need. But it WOULD have a negative impact on people with piles of cash. Austerity, on the other hand, reduces GDP growth and increases unemployment, but keeps inflation low, which benefits people with those aforementioned piles of cash. It should not be a surprise that this is the choice we make - lots of people like you and me suffer, but rich people get to keep a little more of their wealth...