Just shut up and let me do the talking

It’s about damn time that the public reports about the private negotiations on the federal budget had some good news: Speaker Boehner and President Obama have gotten everyone else to leave the room!

Since the election last month there’s been plenty of balloon juice about how to avoid running the federal budget over a “fiscal cliff,” which is just an agreement made last year between Congress and the administration on a set of tax increases and budget cuts that would go into effect at the first of next year unless they took some other action on taxes and spending by that deadline. Remember when they said that Washington had “kicked the can down the road?” Well, this is where that can stopped; it was kicked to here so the issue wouldn’t inconveniently get noticed while America was paying attention during the fall election campaigns.

You’d like to think that there would have been some effort underway all along during the past year and a half to find a compromise on ways to strengthen the economy and reduce the government’s budget deficit, but to all appearances there wasn’t. The people we elected to go to Washington to use their judgment and wisdom in the best interests of our communities and our states and our country couldn’t climb down off their talking points long enough to get anything constructive accomplished. They could, however, make a lot of noise about the virtuousness of their own moral and political philosophies, and by extension if not by direct accusation the seditious intentions of their “friends across the aisle.” Perfect way to prepare the ground for fruitful negotiation over disagreements, right?

You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that any honest effort to come to a compromise on a course of action regarding a disputed issue isn’t aided by (1) having too many negotiators at the table, and (2) conducting the negotiations in public. The more people that are involved, the harder it is to get everyone to agree on anything. And the more the people who are involved do their talking in public and make great political show of what they will and will not accept, the harder they make it on themselves to come to a compromise without seeming to lose face in public or run the risk of being bashed as surrender monkeys or traitors to some cause or other. So it seems to me to be a thoroughly sensible decision that Boehner has asked the Senate leaders and the House Democratic leader to step back, and that “White House aides and the speaker’s staff, by mutual agreement, have largely shut down public communication about the talks” in the hope that some real progress can be made.

Now for the entertainment portion of today’s post: since I’m not one to overlook an opportunity to point out stupidity where it exists, I should highlight this. The Times story notes that as the president reaffirmed his position that the tax rate on incomes above $250,000 must go up…

On Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, moved Thursday to vote on Mr. Obama’s proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress’s control over the federal government’s statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president. Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found they had 51 solid votes, and took Mr. McConnell up on what Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called “a positive development.”

Mr. McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.

“I do believe we made history on the Senate floor today,” Mr. [Richard] Durbin said.

History indeed: had to filibuster his own bill to keep it from being passed! I’m thinking that Ashley Judd might be just the thing the U.S. Senate and the people of Kentucky need.

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Gang of Six comes to the table with a plan, and some hope

A plan, a plan!  We have a plan, we just aren’t telling you what it is, not just yet.

And just because you and I don’t know what’s in it doesn’t mean that this budget plan from the Group of Six might not be a solid foundation for building a way to get the nation’s budget out of the ditch, and maybe get support for a debt ceiling increase before the government defaults on its loans in two weeks.

Today, a bipartisan group (or Gang) of six senators that has been meeting privately for months looking for a way out of the federal budget quicksand briefed Senate colleagues on a plan to cut about $4 trillion dollars from the budget deficit over the next 10 years.  The plan is said to be similar to the one presented by the president’s deficit study commission, and calls for spending cuts and tax increases (yeah, I said it—tax increases).  A number of Republicans and Democrats came out of the meeting with positive things to say about this effort.

President Obama praised the plan, noting that it’s “consistent” with the approach he’s been pushing in recent negotiations.  Now, that may be all it takes to doom the plan in the eyes of Obama-haters, but there’s still hope.  This plan will be there waiting for both houses to pick up after the GOP’s “Cut, Cap and Balance” plan fails to win approval; it wouldn’t be ready to be implemented right away, but could show enough good faith for enough Republicans to do what has to be done right away—raise the debt ceiling by August 2 to prevent government default and all the consequences that will bring to the economy, and to you and me.

Just for good measure, on that proposal for a balanced budget amendment: Dahlia Lithwick and Doug Kendall make an interesting case that amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget, in the way that Tea Party members are proposing to do, would actually “crash headlong into the very constitutional principles the Tea Party purports to cherish” and that if successful could hamstring the nation’s ability to defend itself.  Here’s hoping they’re still capable of seeing the irony of this situation.

You hate to see a grown legislator cry

It’s not a pleasant sight, but we should get used to it because it’s not over: across the country, and soon in Washington, D.C., elected representatives are finally struggling with making actual budget cuts.

Here in Texas we face the same problem as everyone else: not enough money to pay for everything we want.  Fact is, we’re $23 billion short of what we’d need to fund the last budget with no increases in anything—or in other words, we need to cut the last budget by more than 12%—and the Texas Constitution doesn’t permit deficit spending.  So our legislature is in the midst of that “adult conversation” we’ve heard so much about, making tough decisions about what to keep and what to cut.

No one’s really in favor of cutting state funding of public education by $8 billion (or in favor of what Tom the Dancing Bug down there is imagining), or short-sheeting projected growth in Medicaid caseloads by $4 billion, or running TDB onbombing schoolsthe risk of nursing homes closing because of the proposed cut in Medicaid reimbursement rates.  But all of that’s in the budget approved yesterday by the state House of Representatives, and that’s after getting the governor to agree to use $3.1 billion dollars from the savings account.

Republican leaders in the Texas House, who are still talking about finding some “non-tax revenue” source to ease the cuts, passed this budget because they believe the voters made it clear in November that they’re opposed to raising any taxes, and so far there’s been no groundswell of Texans begging to pay higher taxes to prevent these cuts…although there’s been plenty of complaints about what’s proposed to be cut.

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, likened the situation to entering a burning house and finding schoolchildren in one room and elderly people in another.

“I finally figured out that I couldn’t save anybody in this fire,” Dutton said, asking why lawmakers chose not to put out the fire by addressing the state’s underlying fiscal problems.

The same kind of tough decisions need to be made in Washington, and just like in Texas there’s no way to make real change without pain—a lot if it.  Most of the federal budget is tied up in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and defense spending.  The deficit commission concluded that everything has to be on the table for discussion, and a small group of senators has been negotiating quietly to come up with a plan.

Tomorrow, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin releases his plan, and I hope that kicks off some serious discussion about our options for resolving the government’s financial problem.  I hope, but frankly I’m not overly optimistic about Congress solving the problem: you see, tomorrow another group of worthies meets at the White House to see if they can keep the government from shutting down on Friday, because Congress has repeatedly failed in its responsibility to pass a budget for the year that started October 1 of LAST YEAR!

C’mon, guys; cut the crap and get serious, wouldya?