First the good news, then the better news, then the bad news

The good news is this: Congress has reached a budget deal.  Yes, the U.S. Congress.  And not when facing a deadline.  America’s guests have done a thing that is rare in this day—their jobs.  Here are the details; I’m most enthused at the idea that enough members showed enough maturity and leadership to actually work out some agreement, one which means we and the world can go two years without having to fret about a government shutdown.

Now to the better news, which I would actually classify as a Christmas miracle if I were given to assuming that God takes sides in American politics (or sports): the mainstream Republican Party is showing signs of finally standing up to the conservative extremists.  Speaker of the House John Boehner was the first to publicly, honestly, express his exasperation with the tea partyish crowd that has pushed the GOP so far to the edge of American politics that they have to stand on each other’s shoulders a mile high in order to see the center.  He reportedly got even more “honest” in private:

“They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Mr. Boehner told rank-and-file House Republicans during a private meeting on Wednesday as he seethed and questioned the motives of the groups for piling on against the plan before it was even made public.

“They are not fighting for conservative policy,” he continued, according to accounts of those present. “They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous.”

The conservatives of course defended themselves, which is perfectly fine; I hope the center and the far right keep this back-and-forth going ad infinitum (we’re already well past ad nauseum).  For however long they fight with each other—and these things don’t last as long as you might wish them to—it keeps them from concentrating their fire outside the circle; maybe that keeps the extremists from winning more elections and coming into real power to remake America in their own frightening image.

One more politics thing: did you see who was cited by PolitiFact for the Lie of the Year?  Yep, our president.  Selected by a reader poll from among ten finalists, “If you like your health plan, you can keep it” was chosen by 59%, the winner going away and embarassingly ahead of popular favorites like “Congress is exempt from the healthcare law” (Ted Cruz), “No U.S.-trained doctors will accept Obamacare” (Ann Coulter) and “Muslims are exempt from Obamacare” (chain email).  President Obama’s catchy little reassurance actually worked its way up over the years from “half true” to “pants on fire” and now Lie of the Year.  Congratulations, Mr. President, for finding a way to help the self-defeating conservatives survive the circular firing squad.

Advertisements

The fault is not in our stars

Congress is back in Washington—a warning that reminds me of the comment many years ago by then-mayor Jeff Friedman of Austin, Texas, who, when asked for his thoughts about the fact that the state legislature was coming back to town soon, said “Lock up the kids and dogs.”

The legislative branch and the president are back in town, in theory, to deal with the prospect of more than $600 billion worth of budget cuts and tax increases scheduled to go into effect next week. They’re not making much progress, as you might imagine.

Remember, the “fiscal cliff” is a threat the legislative and executive branches imposed on themselves a year and a half ago. To resolve an impasse over extending the debt ceiling so the government could continue to borrow money and pay its bills, our “leaders” set this time bomb of higher taxes and cuts to federal programs to force themselves to come to agreements on taxes and spending and debt ceilings before the “unthinkable” happened. Well, now we’re on the doorstep of the unthinkable, and look what they’re doing. (By the way, the Treasury department says we’re going to hit the debt ceiling next week!)

Perhaps more annoying than our elected leaders’ inability to govern—for that is what it really comes down to, their inability to do what they were sent there to do—is the realization that the focus on the fiscal cliff isn’t what’s really important anyway. Not to say that higher taxes and program cuts don’t matter, but that the real cause of the government’s economic problems—spending more than we take in—still isn’t being addressed.

The fiscal cliff was a crisis of Congress’ own making, brought on by its inability to address many of the same problems last year. The bigger problem, which lawmakers aren’t addressing, is the lack of sustainable fiscal policy.

We are in this mess in part because for decades leaders from both parties have been reading from the same economic playbook. They haggle over the small change while trying to convince Americans that it will make a profound difference in the country’s finances.

Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy recently offered another on-target analysis that reminds us the real problem isn’t the fiscal cliff, it’s the historic lack of honesty on the part of the political parties.

The budget battle playing out in Washington is nothing more than a giant national temper tantrum. Since 2001, we have been on a spending jag that has ballooned well beyond the costs of inflation and population growth. We’ve funded wars and prescription drug plans, bailed out banks and automakers and stimulated the economy. These programs have spanned both parties’ control of the White House and Congress.

At the same time, we’ve cut taxes. We now have the lowest average tax rate in about 30 years, yet many still complain taxes are too high and protest any threats to cut or curtail entitlement programs.

For more than a decade, we have demanded more while expecting to pay less. No one wants to admit the party’s over.

But they do want to admit—they’re desperate to admit—that the other party is causing the problem. As for the immediate issue, after the House speaker and the president couldn’t come up with a deal last week John Boehner has insisted that the Senate must come up with a plan and then the House will consider it, while the Democratic leadership in the Senate “stands strong” insisting that the House approve a measure it’s already turned down…or else.  (Or else what?) And just while I’ve been writing this, CNN reported that President Obama is about to make a new offer, until it reported that he won’t.

As disheartening as it is to see our national leadership apparently incapable of acting in the nation’s best interests, the situation becomes damn near depressing when you recognize who is really to blame: it’s us. You; me; them; those guys over there, too—we are responsible for the evolution of a system in which ideological extremists representing the view of a minority of citizens are able to reach positions of national power, and we are responsible for not holding our leaders to account for not putting national interests first, and we are responsible for taking more and more from our government but not being willing to pay for what we take.

The solution to our government’s economic problems won’t come out of Congress this week or next; it won’t come from refusing to reduce spending on government programs (which, frankly, no one is doing), nor from refusing to raise taxes and threatening to hold one’s breath until one turns blue (which, candidly, more than one are doing). It will come, when it comes, with the realization by Americans that America can’t keep putting its everyday expenses on a credit card and only make the minimum payments indefinitely and still expect to remain fiscally healthy.  It doesn’t work like that, and we have the national debt and the federal budget deficit to prove it.

Health insurance law ruling will refocus fall campaign–away from the most important issues!

Let the predictable caterwauling begin: today the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of President Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, with Chief Justice John Roberts leading the majority on the 5-4 decision.

The heart of the disagreement over the law is its requirement that each of us Americans purchase health insurance, and the court has now ruled that the requirement does not violate the Constitution.

During oral arguments in March, conservative justices indicated they were skeptical about the individual mandate, the provision in the 2,700-page health-care law that requires nearly all Americans to obtain health insurance by 2014 or pay a financial penalty.

Arguing the case for the Obama administration, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. defended the law as a constitutional exercise of congressional power under the charter’s commerce clause to regulate interstate commerce. He said lawmakers were regulating health insurance to deal with the problem of millions of people who lack coverage and therefore shift costs to the insured when they cannot pay for their medical care.

Paul D. Clement, representing Florida and 25 other states objecting to the health-care law, argued that Congress exceeded its power in passing the law, which he said compels people to buy a product.

The court rejected Obama administration’s commerce-clause argument, but ruled 5-4 that Congress nevertheless “has the power to impose” the individual mandate under its taxing authority. The provision “need not be read to do more than impose a tax,” the opinion said. “This is sufficient to sustain it.”

Neither the plaintiffs in the case nor the Obama administration had argued before the court that the individual mandate was a tax.

(In fact, that is the point made—the only point made—in the story I saw when I clicked on the lead headline on FoxNews.comthis afternoon.)

The decision means that implementation of the new law should proceed, with the aim to get health insurance coverage for tens of millions of currently uninsured Americans; these are the people who currently access the most expensive health care around through emergency rooms and charity care, medical care that those of us who pay taxes are already footing the bill for anyway.

So, that’s settled.  Or not.  Arguably, the real heart of the disagreement is that this is Obama’s plan, and people who had supported similar health care insurance law revisions in the past (like the conservative Heritage Foundation and many Republicans; like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, W. Mitt Romney, Gov.) opposed this one because it was Obama’s plan.  People like Mitch McConnell, and others who have proudly and publicly asserted that they will do whatever is required to make Barack Obama a one-term president (for whatever reason).

The dissent in the case will only fuel their fire: it argues that the Obamacare mandate that individuals purchase a product—health insurance—and its threatened denial of some Medicaid funding to states for non-compliance both unconstitutionally exceed government authority, and that since those provisions are crucial to making the system work, the entire statute should be tossed out…hmm, not much room for compromise here, I guess.

It’s unfortunate that the divide on the court was (except for Roberts) by perceived political ideology—for many people that’s going to reinforce the idea that the justices make their decisions based on politics rather than the law, and that will reinforce the left/right division in politics.  But it could have been worse: as David Franklin from DePaul University’s College of Law argues in Slate, Roberts found a way to uphold ACA in order to save the integrity of the Supreme Court.

A 5-4 decision to strike down Obamacare along party lines, whatever its reasoning, would have been received by the general public as yet more proof that the court is merely an extension of the nation’s polarized politics. Add the fact that the legal challenges to the individual mandate were at best novel and at worst frivolous, and suddenly a one-vote takedown of the ACA looks like it might undermine the court’s very legitimacy.

And, of course, health care is now likely to become the distraction center for a presidential campaign that I’d hoped would hold its focus on employment and the federal budget.

(We don’t need to spend time discussing how, in their rush to be first with the news, CNN and Fox both got the story completely wrong, do we?  Fish in a barrel…)

Here’s a smattering of the early reports on the court ruling, for your edification and delight:

In the spring a young man’s fancy also turns to baseball and cars; politics is getting in the way

Yep, another great day: sunny skies and highs in the low 80s in southeast Texas, got a ticket for my first game of the new baseball season tonight, made some good progress with a new swing thought out on the driving range yesterday, and I’m about a week away from trading in a serviceable but boxy and uninspiring VW for a very low mileage Honda two-seater—just the kind I’ve always loved and used to drive—while lowering my costs in the process!  With Rick Santorum’s exit from the GOP presidential primary, I’m hoping we can all enjoy a period of relative campaign quiet, too, but here’s something to roll around in your head before Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, and the permanent political class, use up all the oxygen.

It has looked like, from the vantage point of today, that come November we voters would face a choice between the radicalism that defines today’s Republican Party or another four years of divided government and damn little constructive effort on crucial economic issues.  Even the most moderate-seeming Republican candidate, Romney, was disavowing anything in own past that smelled of reasonableness and compromise, to appeal to the extremists who make up most of the GOP primary voters.  But the need for that should be over now, absent a mind-boggling resurgence from Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul or a last gasp charge to the convention from Sarah Palin or someone of that ilk to rally the “true conservatives.”

But even as Romney starts to redefine himself to appeal to the less ideological among us, Republicans will have a quite a slog in front of them if they wish to broaden their appeal beyond those who’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid.  Former White House speechwriter and senior policy adviser Michael Gerson says it’s not just a matter of trying to counter the Democrats’ “war on women” meme: “The GOP’s main problem is not the contraceptive issue; it is the perception that it has become too ideological on many issues.”

Women and independent voters have seen a party enthusiastically confirming its most damaging stereotypes. The composite Republican candidate—reflecting the party’s ideological mean—has been harsh on immigration, confrontational on social issues, simplistic in condemning government and silent on the struggles of the poor. How many women would find this profile appealing on eHarmony?

This is the hidden curse of the Republican congressional triumph of 2010. Republican activists came to believe that purity is all that is necessary for victory. But a presidential candidate, it turns out, requires a broader ideological attraction than your average tea party House freshman.

From an academic standpoint it will be interesting to see if and how Romney and the more traditional Republican elements work to sand the scary edges off of their primary campaign messages, to widen their appeal and entice the plurality of American voters who don’t ritualistically identify with the Republican or Democratic parties; those are the people who will decide this election.  (The Obama campaign isn’t going to make it easy, already working to reinforce Romney’s “severe” conservatism and other primary campaign highlights.)  Gerson argues that “Mainly, women and independents want some reassurance that Republicans give a damn about someone other than Republican primary voters. It is not a high bar. But Romney needs to start somewhere…”.  I’ll check back in after Memorial Day to see how he’s doing.

Pas de trois, denouement, house lights up

With fewer than 12 hours to spare (a lifetime, apparently, in the ways of Washington) the president has signed into law the combination debt ceiling increase/spending-and-deficit reduction compromise approved by both houses of Congress.  There, now don’t you feel much better about everything?  I mean, it only took a few months of bluster and pontificating, and a little threat to keep the nation from paying its bills on time, to get our government to pass a simple debt ceiling increase and take a small step in the direction of fiscal responsibility.

The last act of this tired drama was predictable: the loudest of the antagonists made a great flowery show of establishing their innate human goodness while talking past one another directly to those in the wings who were already persuaded of the rightness of their case…they executed the thrust and parry of choreographed stage fights which held no real threat of damage since the outcomes were predetermined…when time wound down minor characters took center stage to deliver the resolution then ceded the spotlight once again to the stars, who declaimed the lessons of the play and bid us all a good night.

Now the treasury has cash to pay the bills, and Congress is faced with continuing negotiations to find ways to cut spending and/or increase revenue (I’m hoping for the “and”) to get the government closer to living within its means.  They got there by compromising, which means no one is happy with the product:

Some in both houses are unhappy that there were no tax increases to spread the pain; some are unhappy there weren’t even more cuts to get closer to a final solution in one fell swoop; Democrats are unhappy that GOP priorities suffered few hits (but pleased that the cuts are not as severe as in earlier proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan); Republicans are unhappy about potential cuts to the Pentagon budget if future negotiations are not successful; and Tea Partiers are unhappy because there are no significant spending cuts right now and promised future cuts are contingent on the approval of future Congresses.

The proponents of restraint in government spending should see this as a great victory for their cause: it’s not everything they wanted all at once, but they got the president and Congressional Democrats to give more than would have been considered realistic just a few months ago.  That many of them do not—that they feel any compromise was an unforgiveable moral failure—is cause for concern, and the proponents of responsible behavior by grown adults in elected positions of responsibility should see this as a nightmarish premonition of things to come, if not in the budget talks later this year than the next time a debt ceiling needs to be increased.

Now, for those who have the stomach for it, we face the prospect of watching a new select committee of members from both houses and both parties work to find ways to reduce the deficit, and watching both houses debate and vote on a balanced budget amendment—all by end of the year!

How will cuts in federal government spending impact an economy still struggling to recover from recession and build new jobs?  Can we do something about overhauling tax code and/or entitlements, the real answers to a healthier federal budget?  I’m much less concerned right now with who won or lost the latest political fight than I am with a more pertinent matter: how does this deal help the country?