The 118th Congress is currently a consequences-free zone. Members kicked off committees for various antisemitic/conspiratorial/white supremacist statements are back on, while perhaps the most spectacular fabricator in modern congressional history got assignments like it was no big deal. As the Treasury tap dances to postpone default on the national debt, the instigators of the crisis skate via the “both sides“ news coverage that remains inexplicable and inescapable a decade after the last time this happened.
This week the Senate returns to Washington on Monday and the House is back in session starting Tuesday. The House floor calendar is bo-ring. If you ask me, they should publish each week’s schedule at a permanent URL and include that link in their newsletter (just like Hoyer did). Who knows about the Senate floor schedule, as the website is currently down for maintenance.
Swifties will get their day in the Senate Tuesday when the Judiciary Committee holds a hearing into the ticket sales monopoly. There’s no committee proceedings in the House because they’re not organized yet, and we only see announced Senate hearings in the Judiciary committee. The steering committees in both chambers still have more appointments to recommend to fill out the committees.
Rep. Don Bacon captured the current Beltway dynamics of the debt limit perfectly last week when he told Politico that the Biden Administration’s “initial comment of zero negotiations is a non-starter.” This little turn of doublespeak implies there are two legitimate sides to this crisis and that bipartisan negotiation is the solution. In reality, one side is currently refusing to legitimize what amounts to a hostage taking. In reality, the end of law last Congress had Republicans refusing to lift a single solitary finger to fix this — presumably that’s the counterparty? — but the “both sides” reflex of political reporting ensures that logic won’t get in the way of lazy political tropes beloved by editors.
Hearing his music all the way from Davos, Sen. Joe Manchin suggested that Congress should revive the bipartisan “supercommittee” of 2011 to examine trust fund solvency for several federal programs. Pardon me while I look for the airsickness bag. That effort, which predated the creation of the House Freedom Caucus by four years, surfaced an array of ideas for raising revenue and cutting spending but produced bubkis. Gornisht. Zilch.
Well, even worse than nothing: the supercommittee and subsequent sequester highlights a road that no sane person would ever go down again. Moreover, using the debt ceiling to play thermonuclear hot potato is a level of irresponsible that I lack the words to describe. Sen. Manchin proclaiming that the White House ultimately will have to negotiate its way out of this mess is oil magnate rich given how he and his Davos high-five partner kept us in it — and, given Sen. Sinema’s newly declared independent status, would have constituted a bipartisan agreement that met Sen. Manchin’s previous precondition for a deal.
Being locked into a bipolar narrative of political conflict subsumes the real damage being done to the institution of Congress and American democracy, to say nothing of the damage looming for the economy now that the default clock has started ticking. (When we talk about the economy, it should be understood to mean that nearly all of us are going to get squished when things go south.) The faction forcing the debt crisis is not calling for negotiation like Rep. Bacon: it’s making demands in a tripartite conflict between itself, Democrats, and Republicans. Both political parties are hostages, although one has Stockholm syndrome, and we just watched a few weeks ago as the Freedom Caucus-faction extracted concession after concession in a similar situation. Whatever the Biden Administration could offer would never be enough. But the Republican conference has to keep up the ruse that this is a legitimate and serious policy discussion that can be addressed through negotiation (i.e. one-sided concessions) because it’s what the null faction demands.
As economic foreshocks begin, those who realize that negotiations are actually rope-a-dope will pressure President Biden to take some kind of executive action. Some may call for him to declare unilaterally the illegitimacy of the debt limit. Arguing that two conflicting laws gives the president the option to choose which one to follow is a pathway to unfettered executive power. (That’s bad.) A more legally sound if fanciful-sounding idea would be to mint the trillion-dollar coin, which has the virtue of both solving the problem and being lawful. That approach makes the debt hawks scream because they don’t get to extract their pound of flesh — and also because it’s outside the normal discourse about how to resolve these problems. But, and I’m wincing as I write this, it likely will be the coin of the realm, or in this case, the coin that saves the realm.
So long as Congress is gridlocked — which is a metonym for the fact that it is the Freedom Caucus faction and their conservative Republican allies who view the debt ceiling as an opportunity to mug the Congress — public calls for Biden to act unilaterally (and in some instances extralegally) will grow. Such actions likely would save the global economy, but they reinforce the “Green Lantern” theory of executive power where only a president’s imagination and willpower prevents progress on governing priorities. In a Congress where a political minority holds what is, in effect, an insurmountable veto, people will look for a savior on a white horse, er, in a White House. This is understandable, but it’s a very dangerous game to play with executive branch power and it’s, in part, how we got here in the first place.
Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for January 23, 2023: In your debt”