Friday, November 30, 2012

Back on the air slowly…and a call for Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane to please, please get a grip.

In my last post on October 29th , I told you that my father was experiencing “sudden, surprising weakness”.  The weakness continued and deepened over the next days.  He died on November 1st.  Blogging took a back seat for a while. 

It's been a month.  It’s time to try to get back on the air again.  Blogging will be a little slow for a few weeks as I get back into the routine, but a few weeks is actually pretty good timing.  The economic news right now seems slow, at least to me, and the op-eds in the Post have been mild.  But in a few weeks the fiscal cliff frenzy will probably be well underway, and there will be a lot to respond to.

For the moment, let me just say that the fiscal cliff itself offers little terror: it can come and go, and the economy will survive.  If nothing is done over the next six months it could hurt, but is that really likely?  Once we pass the fiscal cliff moment the Defense department will be facing enormous sequesters, and the Bush tax cuts will all be gone.  All of them, not just for the top 2% but for the top 100%.  There will be a sudden increase in payroll tax deductions as the payroll tax holiday (an Obama economic stimulus policy) expires.  And a few other spending cuts and tax increases will happen automatically, all of which will cause anger, disgust, wailing and rending of garments among the populace---which means among the voters in every Congressional district. Is it really likely that Congress will offer no better alternative in the face of all of that constituent anguish?  My guess is that we will go over the fiscal cliff first, and then Congress will act.  But provisions of the cliff will not last as they are.

Obama’s first proposal is interesting, and contrary to the huge outcry from the Republican side, it is useful.  It presents a Democratic first offer perfectly.  The Republican reject it on the grounds that it doesn’t offer a proposal on Medicare reform---but, of course, it does: by default it’s a proposal to leave Medicare as it is.  That may be a proposal the Republicans don’t like, but it is a proposal.  It is one of the many options available to us.  If the Republican side has a better option, they should offer it, rather than demand that the Democrats create their counter-offer for them.

One line from the Washington Post’s front page article on this needs a response---in fact, it’s the first line, the topic line.  Here it is, complete, from the piece by Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane:

“President Obama offered Republicans a detailed plan Thursday for averting the year-end ‘fiscal cliff’ that calls for $1.6 trillion in new taxes, $50 billion in fresh spending on the economy and an effective end to congressional control over the size of the national debt.”  (emphasis is mine)

Ms. Montgomery, Mr. Kane, please get a grip.  The Constitution is pretty clear on this: Congress exercises absolute and complete control over the size of the national debt, every penny of it, every time. Every single deficit is enacted through Congress.  Congress passes the budgets---all of them, every line.  The President can (and of course does) propose budgets, but it’s reasonably clear that Congress does not feel any binding obligation to pass the President’s proposals.  Congress passes tax policy.  Every single tax policy, every time.  Yes, there is wiggle room both on spending and taxing sides, and the Executive branch does use it.  But every bit of wiggle room is provided in legislation passed by Congress.  Every time.

I have to guess here, since I haven’t actually seen the Obama proposal to the Republican leadership.  But my guess is that Obama has asked Congress to stop the regular habit of threatening to default on the national debts that Congress has created.  He has, probably, asked them to abandon the truly odd process of having to pass a debt ceiling increase in addition to their votes on taxes and budgets.  He has probably asked them instead to treat their votes on budgets as granting the right to finance any deficit they just voted to create: in other words, to vote, every time, as part of the budget process, to raise the debt ceiling if necessary to cover the deficit the new budget implies. 

This shouldn’t be controversial, frankly.  Congress has the right, and the power, to default on our national financial obligations if it really wants to. But the rule should be that if it really feels that is the best course of action it should have to propose that, and vote on it specifically.  Right now, under the current process, default on our national debt is the default position: under current law the nation will default automatically unless Congress votes to prevent it by raising the debt ceiling over and over and over.  

And we’re about to go through that painful, shameful, process again. That absurdity is approaching too, right on the heels of the fiscal cliff.