Republicans have repeatedly and often successfully threatened to do Nothing, in order to force President Obama and Democrats to do Something that Republicans want. To stop the cycle, Congress must do … Something. (More)

Something or Nothing, Part III: Something to Stop Nothing (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature examines the institutional roadblocks faced by progressive legislation. Thursday we considered our constitutional structure and how the Framers created gridlock by design. Yesterday we saw why and how Republicans have manufactured crises by threatening to do Nothing in order to force Democrats to do Something. Today we conclude with options to lessen the gridlock and restore a functioning Congress.

“I think that’s where we’re headed ultimately here”

With the sequester cuts now beginning, attention in Congress has shifted to the next deadline. The current continuing budget resolution expires on March 27th. Known as a CR, this is a stop-gap measure to fund the federal government in the absence of an actual budget bill passing in both the House and Senate and signed by the president. If Congress cannot pass a CR, the government must shut down. As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said Thursday night, the CR offers Republicans yet another opportunity to threaten to do Nothing, in an attempt to force President Obama and Democrats to do Something that Republicans want:

Well first of all, I don’t think anyone is in favor of shutting down the government, but I think that’s where we’re headed ultimately here, unfortunately, if we don’t fix our debt problem. […] But here’s what I’ve said about this continuing resolution. Senator Cruz from Texas is offering this amendment to defund Obamacare. If that gets onto the bill, in essence, if they get a continuing resolution and we can get a vote on that and pass that onto the bill, I’ll vote for a continuing resolution, even if it’s temporary, because it does something permanent, and that’s defund this health care bill, this Obamacare bill, that is going to be an absolute disaster for the American economy.

Ironically, Sens. Rubio and Cruz make this demand while Republicans in state governments are increasingly choosing to implement Obamacare. On Wednesday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer begged Republican state legislators to accept the expanded Medicaid portion of Obamacare, warning that not doing so would leave 50,000 low-income Arizonans without access to health care. “The human cost of this tragedy can’t be calculated,” Gov. Brewer warned. “Remember, there is no Plan B.”

And this week House Republican leaders, including Speaker John Boehner and Majority Whip Eric Cantor, urged the president to increase funding for Obamacare’s high-risk insurance pools that cover Americans with preexisting conditions. The pools were set to expire when the health care bill is fully implemented next year, but no longer have enough funds to accept new applicants. House Republicans urged the president to shift money from Obamacare’s $10 billion wellness and prevention fund, already cut from $15 billion as part of a 2012 deal to extend the payroll tax cuts and emergency unemployment benefits.

“Running out the clock”

And if Congress do agree on a CR that President Obama will sign, they move on to the next deadline – and Republicans’ next chance to threaten doing Nothing – when the federal government reaches the again reaches the debt limit in May. As the Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne wrote last month, this cycle keeps the political dialogue focused solely on the Republican agenda:

The 2012 election gave President Obama new authority and new energy. Republicans want to place as much distance between themselves and that election as they possibly can. From their perspective, the more months we fritter away on these dumb, fake emergencies, the better. As Obama’s clout slowly diminishes, so will his opportunities to press his priorities.

If Washington can be kept in a state of partisan paralysis, Republicans stand to gain more. The voters hoped that by settling certain questions in 2012, they could push the politicians toward problem-solving. Some Republicans, in their heart of hearts, even want this to happen. But if gridlock retains its icy grip on government, the president will ultimately suffer because it is members of his constituency who will be most demoralized by the failure of their votes to change anything.

After noting that Republicans could get most of the policy goals they claimed to want by making a deal, Dionne concludes:

But that is not the victory the Republicans seek. The sequester game is a contest in which their side wins simply by running out the clock, no matter what the score is. Thus, Obama can’t just score points. He needs to figure out how to end this game so he can play the one he promised us when he said his reelection could “break the fever” in Washington. Alas, it has not broken yet.

Action on jobs, immigration, gun safety, climate change, and other progressive goals remain out of reach so long as Republicans can threaten to do Nothing – and cause dire consequences for the nation – unless President Obama and Democrats agree to do Something by cutting our already-flimsy social safety net.

“A months-long war of attrition”

President Obama and Democrats are well aware of that, and the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent reports that they are “settling in for what will amount to a months-long war of attrition in hopes of ultimately getting Republicans to cave on new revenues.”

A senior Senate Democratic aide told Sargent “the Republican leadership is completely entrenched” against new revenues, but that rank-and-file Republicans in the Senate and House may not entirely agree. Their states and districts will soon feel the sequester’s bite, building pressure to make a deal. That may be why President Obama met with a dozen Republican senators this week, without Minority Leader McConnell in attendance. The president is scheduled to meet with House Republicans next week, and he may set up other meetings without Speaker Boehner.

“Even we are tired of lurching from one cliff to another”

Although President Obama hopes for a deal on the sequester by summer, he and Senate Democrats seem willing to wait longer rather than accept a bad deal. And merely reaching an agreement to replace the sequester cuts with less arbitrary and less damaging cuts will not end the progress-deadening cycle of lurching from one Republican-manufactured fiscal crisis to the next. To get out of that cycle, E.J. Dionne wrote this week, President Obama needs a ‘grand bargain’ agreement:

Obama’s lieutenants argue that, while Republicans are aware that the president is seeking new revenue through tax reform, many did not fully grasp the extent to which he has offered significant long-term spending cuts. These include reductions in Medicare and a willingness (to the consternation of many Democrats) to alter the index that determines Social Security increases. Obama has proposed $930 billion in cuts to get $580 billion in revenues.

Senior administration officials note that Obama cannot stray too far from his existing offer, which was already a compromise, without losing the Democratic votes a deal would need. But his framework, they believe, could create a basis for negotiation with Republican senators, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC), who dislike the deep, automatic cuts in defense spending, and others, such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Bob Corker of Tennessee, who dislike government-by-showdown.

In this scenario, Speaker Boehner would face the same dilemma he saw in the fiscal cliff deal: a bad situation about to get worse, with the Senate having passed a compromise solution and the public ready to blame House Republicans if they don’t go along. As Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told the Wall Street Journal this week, “Even we are tired of lurching from one cliff to another. I think that’s lending some pressure towards trying to come up with some kind of a grand bargain.”

“Is that truly better?”

How ‘grand’ would a ‘grand bargain’ be? Of course that depends on whom you ask, and what other priorities you want President Obama and Congress to address. But The Nation‘s George Zornick warned that a ‘grand bargain’ will likely upset many progressives and may hurt Democrats in 2014:

Sequestration is a terrible policy; the cuts will touch a number of vital government functions and inflict unnecessary pain on many Americans. But here’s what Obama is proposing: an unbalanced package of $930 billion in cuts and $580 billion in revenue, with an additional $100 billion in deficit reduction through Chained CPI. This is the formula that would cut Social Security benefits $1,000 per year for some seniors and take $1,400 per year from disabled veterans.

Is that truly better? The sequestration cuts are damaging, but money taken away can always be restored later. (In this case it would involve scrapping the Budget Control Act, which is no doubt more difficult.) Chained CPI, however, permanently cuts the safety net, and that’s much harder to ever undo—and the fact that a Democratic president did it opens the door to even more cuts down the road.

It also presents serious political risks for the Democratic Party. Obama is currently being blamed by Republicans and many in the media for the idea of sequestration, as he was blamed relentlessly during the 2012 campaign for the $700 billion Medicare cuts—both things he ostensibly proposed to appease Republicans. He will almost certainly be blamed for cutting Social Security as well if his plan is enacted.

These are real political risks, as is the possibility that – having accepted a ‘grand bargain’ – Republicans will then say the new taxes are too much and the new cuts too little … and go back to the cycle of threatening to do Nothing unless President Obama and Democrats agree to still more Republican demands for Something.

Despite those risks, President Obama offered an ambitious progressive agenda in his Second Inaugural Address and State of the Union. If he and Democrats hope to focus the public’s attention on the rest that agenda, he and Congress must get past the whack-a-mole crises that Paul Krugman aptly termed “protection racket politics.”

President Obama and Democrats must to do Something … to stop Republicans from doing Nothing.


Happy Saturday!