“How to End the Budget Crisis Quickly”

My friend Paul, a retired political scientist, has the following suggestion.

John Boehner, Speaker of the House, is in the best position to put a decisive end to the current mess in Washington, D.C. After all, he is Speaker of the HOUSE, not Speaker of the Republican Party. All he needs to do is to allow the House to vote on the budget, despite the objections of a minority within the Republican Party. If the Tea Party fanatics try to un-elect him as Speaker for doing this, House Democrats should vote FOR him to prevent this from happening since he would be acting as THEIR Speaker too.

Let our slogan be: John Boehner is Speaker of the HOUSE, not of the Republican Party.

The question is, do the Democrats really want this to end quickly? Or do they want to let their opponents continue their little civil war?

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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28 Responses to “How to End the Budget Crisis Quickly”

  1. trumwill says:

    It’s a great idea and I would post it over at OrdTimes if I had a fraction of the amount of time it would require to monitor the comment fallout, which I don’t.

    There are two stumbling blocks here. First, all the Democrats need to be able to do is credibly say “We did what we could, it’s on them.” This would be going further out of their way to end the shutdown than they have to. It would be taking the suicide rifle from the Republicans’ hands. So I’m not sure they would go for it.

    The bigger issue would be Boehner and the forward-minded Republicans. Now, I have gone on the record as saying that yes, eventually, there will be a “moderate rebellion” if things continue along their current trajectory. But we’re not there yet.

    Boehner may get to keep the Speakership and be the first Unity Speaker that we’ve had for a really long time. But this would end pretty much as soon the current logjam is done. Or, at the latest, the 2014 elections. Boehner would have to know that at some point, it would be politically advantageous for the Democrats to sell him down the river because it’s much easier to run against Speaker Cantor than a Unity Speaker. If I were him, I’d be very wary.

    More to the point, though, he can’t be speaker in 2014 if he doesn’t have a House seat. His House Seat is, I would guess, not among those where he would have more to fear in a general election than in a primary. And he would become a very, very high priority for the Tea Party.

    And he might have trouble getting Republican congressmen to go with him on it. They haven’t hit rock bottom just yet.

  2. J@m3z Aitch says:

    His House Seat is, I would guess, not among those where he would have more to fear in a general election than in a primary.

    The Democrats didn’t even put up a candidate against him in ’12, so there’s an outside chance you might be right.

  3. Troublesome Frog says:

    The Democrats didn’t even put up a candidate against him in ’12, so there’s an outside chance you might be right.

    Can the party leadership officially offer to squelch any opposition to him in the next election if he plays ball? He could even use it as a creepy selling point in the primary. “I’ll run unopposed. The other guy? Who knows?”

    I think we’re at a point where having the two parties colluding to divide up seats would hardly make things more than incrementally worse.

  4. J@m3z Aitch says:

    No. In the U.S. political candidates are self-selected and self-identify with whatever party they want. Besides, when the guy runs unopposed in one election, it shows how successfully gerrymandered his district is, so offering to squelch an opponent really is like offering ice to Eskimos.

  5. Troublesome Frog says:

    No. In the U.S. political candidates are self-selected and self-identify with whatever party they want.

    True, but they can withhold all of the normal party machine support that normally blessed candidates are given. I mean, they usually have the ability to keep multiple candiates from running with the same party affiliation as spoilers. If no money and support are flowing and it’s generally known that The Powers that Be disapprove of giving aid to the rogue Democrat, it could be a pretty nasty squeeze on a candiacy.

    Even better, maybe they can offer to shank one of their own candidates in an actually competitive district. It’s only a matter of time before the two parties start officially agreeing to carve up the country the same way businesses might collude to divide up territory into stable monopoly regions rather than competing.

    “I’ll give you the 16th district in exchange for the 129th and a vote on my tax cut.” It sounds horrifying, but I have a weird feeling that we’ll see it in my lifetime.

  6. pierrecorneille says:

    “The question is, do the Democrats really want this to end quickly? Or do they want to let their opponents continue their little civil war?”

    I think the Dem’s, if they’re smart, would want it to end quickly, if only for their own self-interest. It’s probably true that the shutdown is probably Exhibit N of the GOP self-destruction program, but one never knows just how such things might go back on the Dems if this thing continues.

    For example, if the shutdown lasts more than 2 weeks, and the GOP reintroduces its offer to fund the government piecemeal, there might be a lot of pressure on the Dems to go along and if the government is refunded, piece by piece (except Obamacare), the the GOP might claim victory. That would probably never happen in most universes I’ve lived in, but always uncertain the future is. [/yoda]

  7. trumwill says:

    A central point here, though, is that it doesn’t matter whether or not the Democrats put up someone against Boehner. The Democrats can’t make him any promises at all about his House re-election bid because his primary threat is going to be in the primary. Heck, if the Democrats really wanted to do Boehner a favor, they’d recruit somebody to run against him and fund some ads by the Democratic candidate talking about how terribly conservative Boehner is and how the last thing Washington needs is conservative legislators thrwarting the Democratic agenda.

  8. lancifer666 says:

    If the Republicans could sell their “We’ll fund everything but Obamacare” schtick then they might win this battle. The problem, for them, is that the media has already started the ” Look at all of the poor people suffering from the heartless Republican government shut down.” onslaught.

    The Democrats only need sit back and wait for the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the media to drop the Republican’s poll numbers off a cliff.

    I swear to god, how stupid is the Republican leadership to let this happen, again.

    Bill Clinton is probably laughing his ass off over a Big Mac and a glass of Cognac.

  9. J@m3z Aitch says:

    T-Frog,
    Nobody ran against Boehner last time. That means his district is an impregnable Republican fortress. He has no fear of any Democrat that might challenge him. Jesus could return to Earth, persuade all Republican voters in Boehner’s district that, yes, he actually is the real Son of God, run as the Democratic candidate, and Boehner would still win handily. Whether the Democrats run a candidate or refuse to support one is a concern for Boehner on par with whether you had a healthy breakfast this morning.

    The other proposal, giving up an actual competitive district? Well, if Boehner was willing to trust them to carry through on that–and that’s a hell of a big if, because how can they demonstrate credible commitment to such a deal?–it’s only good for 2 years. He’s already got a majority that with gerrymandering he’s likely to hold next election. So what’s the actual street value of such a promise?

    Will,
    if the Democrats really wanted to do Boehner a favor, they’d recruit somebody to run against him and fund some ads by the Democratic candidate talking about how terribly conservative Boehner is
    Dude, why aren’t you getting paid to be a political strategist?

    Pierre,
    I agree that the Democrats have to take a real deal when it’s offered. They don’t want to appear to be the ones continuing the shutdown. But I don’t think they benefit by taking any proactive steps to help the Republicans get themselves to the point of making a real deal.

    Meanwhile, my staunchly Democrat friend who’s loving watching the Republicans turn on each other is firmly persuaded that it’s all their fault and the Democrats cannot be held responsible in any way, shape or form. I’ve become such a non-partisan that I find this attitude befuddling.

  10. J@m3z Aitch says:

    Lance,

    Even without the media creating sob stories, I don’t think the Republicans could sell that. For one, the “majority against Obamacare” is pretty mythical. You get to that majority by adding the large minority of those who simply hate it as too left wing with the small minority that think it’s not left wing enough and actually want to see more government involvement in health care. The latter aren’t going to buy what the Republicans are selling no matter how its packaged.

    On top of that there is a segment of Americans that aren’t too sure whether they like Obamacare or not, but they do have a feeling, if not a well defined analysis, that a minority of one party using backdoor methods to force major legislative changes to programs passed by a majority isn’t quite kosher. As I told my students the other day, politics is who gets what, when, and how, so from one perspective this is all fair tactics by the Republicans. But even if my cold objective perspective is that it’s a politically legitimate effort, if a majority of the public perceive the method as lacking legitimacy, then de facto it has a legitimacy problem.

  11. Troublesome Frog says:

    J@m3z Aitch:

    …a minority of one party using backdoor methods to force major legislative changes to programs passed by a majority isn’t quite kosher.

    Personally, I think shutdowns are fair game when the two sides are fighting over what to put in next year’s discretionary budget and can’t come to an agreement. They’re a convenient way to see who *really* wants what rather than talking in the abstract. They’re a stupid way to get that done, but at least they arguably do something. Blame can usually comfortably be shoveled onto all sides.

    Shutdowns over legislation whose funding is a separate issue are a little bit sketchier, but as long as everybody’s an adult about it and willing to live with the fallout, I suppose that’s life. Blame much more heavily on the shoulders of the people who are making it harder to pass a budget by bringing in unrelated issues. Passing a budget is hard enough without that kind of nonsense.

    Hitting the debt ceiling is a bridge too far for any issue short of something like, “The majority would like to open concentration camps and start exterminating the Jews.” It’s a tactic that needs to be nuked from space. Blame 100% on the people who try it. Kill it with fire.

  12. J@m3z Aitch says:

    The very existence of debt ceiling is pretty stupid. It’s a now irrelevant artefact from the pre-modern budget era, designed to prevent presidents/agencies from spending money without authorization. Due to changes in our budget procedure it’s no longer relevant, but getting rid of it has the appearance of being careless about the debt, so nobody dare go on record opposing it. If getting rid of it was an outcome of this showdown, it’d at least be one good outcome. But I suspect the only way it could go would be to disappear it in the middle of the night. That is, tuck an elimination of it into some bill nobody’s paying attention to, or hide it in the middle of an omnibus budget bill sometime when we have a party unity government.

  13. Troublesome Frog says:

    I’ve been trying to figure out how eliminating the debt ceiling would be politically possible. The Repubicans can’t possibly vote for it because aside from random culture wars stuff, it’s basically their only issue that gets out the vote. The Dems could do it if they had a huge majority, allowing the Repulicans a symboic vote against it, but that’s just handing your enemy a political weapon.

    Seems to me that the only way for it to happen is for the Supreme Court to neuter it after a constitutional crisis like the one we’re barreling toward. I’m on the fence as to whether that would be worthwhile. I think that my current hierarchy of “important issues” is something like this:

    1) Maintaining the integrity of our system of checks and balances so that no one branch can create a crisis and seize control of the government.
    2) Avoiding financial catastrophe resulting from a debt default.

    n) The toilet paper should roll off of the top of the roll, not the bottom.
    n + 1) Whatever dumbass pet issue the Tea Party is willing to launch the nukes over.

    Sadly, 1 and 2 appear to conflict even though they’re both incredbly important.

  14. j@m3z Aitch says:

    What would be the Supreme Court’s basis for neutering it? I mean, assuming they didn’t refuse the case based on their political questions doctrine, what’s the argument that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional?

    Re: 1) I’ve come to a very different conclusion. It’s the system of separated powers that produces this type of crisis (or “crisis” if one prefers; I can see it either way), as well as what’s enabled the executive to grow ever more powerful (because the checks have proved largely illusory), so we need to junk it and replace it with a parliamentary model. Checks and balances are gone, but so are both those problems.

    Re: n) Damn right. Now if we can just persuade my wife, we can get cracking on the Tea Party’s Outrage Du Jour.

  15. Troublesome Frog says:

    What would be the Supreme Court’s basis for neutering it?

    Perhaps “neutring” is the wrong word, but the law clearly creates a logical impossibility that needs to be resolved. Obama can either issue “illegal” debt, default, or illegally pick and choose which programs to stop funding. If it goes on long enough, even the third becomes a non-option. So he’s going to do one of those things and somebody is going to take him to court. His defense is easy: “What do you want me to do?”

    I expect that the SC would have to tell him exactly what he should do, making the whole thing just another clear-cut case of how government functions. It seems likely that they’d either say, “This law can’t prevent you from borrowing to meet these obligations” and the whole thing dies, or they’d say, “Well, you can’t borrow, and beyond paying our debt, the Constitution says nothing about how to prioritize programs, so pay whatever you want.” If it’s the latter, Obama gets a really vicious line item veto that he can use to crush his enemies and hear the lamentations of their women, thus guaranteeing it will never be used again.

    There are probably a host of other more subtle options, but I seriously doubt that the Court would punt on the case or resolve it in a way that led to another uncertainty filled showdown.

    On the parliamentary side, I’m surprised to hear you say that. I very much agree with you. It took a couple hundred years for the players to fully figure out the rules, but I think we’ve reached a pretty stable and not optimal equilibrium in how our system operates. When we ask, “Who is responsible for this?” both sides can legitimately say, “Nobody, really.” I like the way a parliamentary system says, “Here are the keys. You’re in charge and fully accountable. If we’re unhappy, your party is out.”

  16. J@m3z Aitch says:

    You’ve hit on a key failure of our system–lack of accountability.

    The fundamental difficulty, though, is that Americans aren’t connecting the problems with the institutional design, but just with individuals within those institutions. We are convinced our system is the best ever, so it must just be politicians behaving badly, and if they’d Just Do What’s RightTM everything would be ok. You just can’t persuade Americans otherwise, because we’re indoctrinated from such a young age into the genius of separation of powers that to question it is like questioning religious faith; it’s too unsettling to our settled understanding…err, “understanding” of the world for them to bear.

  17. lancifer666 says:

    James,

    I have admittedly studied very little about parliamentary systems but I don’t readily see how it is immune to abuse by a super-majority than our system. If the majority can secure enough votes to elect a government and pass legislation it would seem that the minority is screwed.

    I guess so long as it is a “constitutional” parliamentary system there is some protection from the “tyranny of the majority” but it seems easier to abuse than a system that is set up to have separate organs of governance.

  18. Troublesome Frog says:

    I’m sensitive to the lack of accountability because I live in California. In CA government, the supermajority budget requirement created a stable equilibrium where everybody did what their electoral mandate told them to do and a budget could never be passed. You can’t “send the bums home” to fix the problem. Well, you can send your bum home, but you like your bum. He did what you wanted him to do. It’s the other guy’s bum that’s the problem. In a case like that, supermajority requirements are fine for optional new laws, but they’re absolute death for things that absolutely must happen (like, say, annual budgets).

    I’ve seen it in failing businesses as well. Piles of middle managers running teams, but no single person is ultimately responsible for getting the project done. Or, if there is such a person, the teams that actually do the work don’t ultimately report to him. Or, major decisions require a consensus of several people, each of whom will get slapped down if he signs on to a bad decision, but all of whom will keep collecting a paycheck if the organization does nothing. It’s excruciating to work in a place like that.

  19. Troublesome Frog says:

    Heck, if the Democrats really wanted to do Boehner a favor, they’d recruit somebody to run against him and fund some ads by the Democratic candidate talking about how terribly conservative Boehner is and how the last thing Washington needs is conservative legislators thrwarting the Democratic agenda.

    I just had another thought on this: What’s to keep Democrats from running a bunch of convincing spoiler candidates as Republicans and diluting the Republican straight-ticket vote? Sure, there would be plenty of ads and buzz about the impostors and who was the “real” Republican, but even one “decoy” on the ballot would peel off a noticeable number of votes from confused or uninformed voters and potentially swing an election in a tight race.

    I assume that the major barrier is getting enough signatures to get on the ballot, but I think we all know that busy people walking out of a big box store will sign nearly any petition you hand them. It’s just a matter of spending money as long as your state allows professional signature gathering.

  20. J@m3z Aitch says:

    Lance,
    There’s nothing to stop the majority in a parliamentary system*, but the voting public can more easily hold the majority accountable for their actions by voting them out of power.**

    *Unless it is a multi-party system where one party rarely manages a minoritu by itself and so must form a coalition government. The cracks in the coalition form a sort of internal check.

    **This is particularly true in systems where people vote for the party itself instead of a local candidate. In the U.S. I could be displeased with the GOP’s actions but like my own GOP representative, but by voting for him/her I effectively give the party a pass instead of punishing them for displeasing me.

  21. J@m3z Aitch says:

    T-Frog,
    Re: SCOTUS. I thought you might take that approach, and I think it’s reasonable. I think, though,that to avoid them ducking it on the political questions basis, the case woukd have to be brought by an affected cituzen, not Congress. I really do lean toward thinking they’d duck the latter. But in either case, we’ve never had a shutdown last long enough that SCOTUS would be abl–or at least likely–to schedule, hear arguments, and write decisions on it. Odds are the case would become moot first. So even if they have reasonable grounds for a decision, I think there are multiple ways for them to evade deciding such a case.

  22. Dr X says:

    I haven’t looked deeply at the question of scrapping our current system of congressional districts, but does anyone have thoughts on alternative systems for electing members of the House. Statewide elections with, for example, a state having 10 seats going to the top ten vote-getters in the candidate field? Some other approach? Would this be better, worse, six of one, half dozen of another? Would there be any reason this might be better even within our current system of split branches versus a parliamentary system? I don’t know how this works in other countries, but the outcomes seem to be vastly different from one to the next, Italy vs UK, as an example. IIRC, the former had historical difficulties forming a stable government, which may or may not have been due to many other differences.

  23. J@m3z Aitch says:

    Dr. X,
    Some thoughts, but not conclusions.
    1. The U.S. Constitution says nothing about districts, so I see no reason this wouldn’t be entirely constitutional.
    2. I assume some, perhaps many, state constitutions specify districts, so there might have to be many constitutional changes at the state level.
    3. It would have no effect, of course, in states with a single representative, and little effect in states with few representatives–any effect would come from medium and large states. I have some vague notions of what constitutes medium here, but the boundaries depend on the next question.
    4. How many votes would each citizen get? E.g., Michigan has 15 representatives. If we went with statewide representation, would I get 15 votes? Would I get 1 vote? Would I get 5 votes?
    4.a. If I got 15 votes, would I have to use each one on a different candidate or could I distribute them as I please, all 15 to one candidate; 5 to each of three candidates; 8 to one, 6 to another, 1 to a third; etc.?
    5. Statewide candidacy in medium to large states would likely mean other parties break through with at least one or two candidates making the top n vote-getting candidates. How many are likely to is a function of how we can divvy up our votes.
    6. This would create an awful electoral burden on candidates in geographically large and politically diverse states, because now–like senators–they’ll need to campaign state-wide (unless they have a really solid group of supporters in one region that can reliably put them into the top n vote-getting candidates), but they’ll have to do it every 2 years instead of every 6 years.
    7. Better? Worse? Depends what standards you’re using. I don’t think we can generically say better or worse, but if we specify what we want to achieve and what we’re willing (or eager) to give up, then we can say.
    8. Districts are one of our great extra-constitutional institutions. Or as I prefer to say, one of the elements of the U.S.’s unwritten Constitution. I can’t imagine how we could ever persuade the public to change it.

  24. Dr X says:

    I don’t expect we could get the public to change it either. Just a question to further my thinking about systems, which is a subject that interests me as well.

  25. lancifer666 says:

    I like the idea of congressional districts. Even if you live in a very populous and homogeneous state your regional area may be very different in political make up: Austin Texas comes to mind.

    Of course in practice gerrymandering can twist the boundaries in ways that get what ever results the party in power wishes. It seems to me that gerrymandering could be eliminated and the system restored to its original intent, but that would take either a SCOTUS that was serious about ending the practice or both political parties agreeing to stop it.

    Neither seems particularly likely a the moment.

  26. Michael Drew says:

    Are we really supposed to accept that there are no political costs to voting for a Speaker who is a highly partisan member of the opposing party that are big enough to complicate this question of whether the Democrats “really” want to reopen the government ASAP? I mean, you need to define what it takes to really want it before that has any meaning, anyway, otherwise you can just keep naming things they would be doing if they really wanted it. I mean, we already know they don’t want it bad enough to offer substantive concessions for fear it would embolden the Tea Party to make demands around the debt ceiling, which would heighten the risk that real debt ceiling brinksmanship becomes an established part of Executive-Legislative relations in the world’s largest economy and the issuer of its reserve currency.

    What the Democrats really want is for the government to be opened on their terms. Quickly if possible, but every day they don;t offer concessions they’re demonstrating that the terms precede the timing. I mean, that’s just the basic dynamic that’s happening. To say that they don’t really want it quickly is just to pick off one of their openly lowest-priority aims. That doesn’t belie their claim to want this to happen quickly: outright capitulation tomorrow would be better than outright capitulation the day after tomorrow. (Really, even!) But, for now at least, their lack of policy concessions amply demonstrates that the “outright” is more important than the “tomorrow.” That they haven’t offered up the outside-the-box and dubiously sustainable (as Will points out) suggestion that Paul made doesn’t demonstrate that timing is less important than terms much more at all than their no-negotiations-under-threat stance and follow-through already has. Health care would be a big price to pay for whatever length CR would be on the table for it, but voting for the leader of the other party for Speaker and ushering in a highly unstable state of affairs in House leadership just to help him do the most basic parts of his job in a way that doesn’t lead to his losing it is a pretty damn big ask, too. It’s hardly so trifling that not being willing to do it demonstrates that the party doesn’t care at all about reopening the government expeditiously (if on their terms) – or even that they don’t “really” care about it.

  27. J@m3z Aitch says:

    I agree. I was just positing that the Dems had little incentive to save the Republicans from themselves.

  28. Michael Drew says:

    They don’t, but of course that doesn’t make the damage to the country that hangs in the balance here an easy tradeoff for the political benefits of holding tough. This is a legitimately hard call for people trying to govern the country right now, IMO. IMO it’s worse to capitulate to these tactics, but only a little. It’s worse because all of these episodes are terrible for us, and they’ll only stop when the issue is finally forced (whether that means forcing lesson-acceptance via forcing breach/default, or forcing capitulation and humiliation), so you might as well do it now. But it’s bad both ways.

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