Memphis, History & Politics

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Government: You're Doing it Wrong.

“Government is broken.” This may be the most commonly used phrase in the news about the Debt Ceiling Crisis, especially among the politicians involved in the battle over it. It may be one of the most used phrases for the past couple of decades. A Google search for the exact phrase returns 159,000 hits. That seems an awfully round number for a truly accurate count, but you get the idea. A poll taken in February 2010 shows that 86% of all Americans agree with this interpretation. Sorry to disagree with America, but "Government" isn't broken; the people we sent to run it just doesn’t know how to operate the thing. The Republic is just fine, if only the people who are supposed to run it would run it that way. While the Debt Ceiling Crisis is just the one small chapter in the big, broke government theme, it's as good of an example of as any why this is bad analysis.In a system structured to require compromise as part of operating the levers of government in the first place, conflict is built into our Republic. Consequently, the fact that extreme factions of either party will hold out to get what they want is not a symptom of a problem, it's not even a problem. It's a feature or it should be in the concept of our Republic. The problems arise from the creation of budgeting tricks that avoid the political fallout of otherwise popular spending. For example, the debt ceiling itself. The debt ceiling is a creation of Congress that creates an artificial limit on how much the government may borrow to pay for the expenditures Congress has already authorized. In other words, a vote on the debt ceiling today essential gives the current Congress the presumed authority to retract spending obligations that were both authorized and funded previously. Is the debt ceiling even constitutional? Most likely, yes. But the issue has never been pressed to a crisis. If the debt ceiling were not raised when the federal government was about to run out of money to pay it's debt, the federal government would be unable to comply with all of the laws, the expenditures versus the cap on borrowing and thus the crisis of what law to disregard and what creditor of the U.S. to stiff. The debt ceiling isn't even a hundred years old and it certainly wasn't part of the structure of the Republic as designed and not a part of the 14th Amendment that obligated the Country pay it's debt. Back then the only borrowing was done in war time.The part that Congress has been doing wrong, particularly since the 1980s, is changing taxes or revenue decreases with no regard for the increased debt those changes create. The massive tax cuts of the 80s were supposed to "pay for themselves" in increased revenue from the magic idea that lower taxes increased economic growth resulting in more revenue. Although the formula never proved true, the myth has been perpetuated. In fact it was massively perpetuated by tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. These were again passed with no regard for the debt everyone knew they would create. In spite of the fact that both the Reagan Tax Cuts and Bush Tax Cuts increased the deficit, the Bush Tax cuts were extended in 2010 by a deal worked out between Obama and Republican Senators who threatened to filibuster every single piece of legislation. Dealing with the debt was to be addressed the next year, or as Obama would later call it, "kicking the can down the road."Passing a law that says the next Congress and the next President cannot spend a certain amount or cannot tax a certain amount is not governing. It's just political cover for not dealing with the problems of right now and the debts built up in the past. Creating a crisis over the debt ceiling for debts already created by complaining about spending yet to take place, is saying you can somehow nullify the expenditures of the past. When you open up the door to that type of revisionist history and hamstringing the future budgets, you're not governing anymore, you're just trying to create a kind of autopilot for government. Add to that a majority of the House, almost all Republicans, have signed a private pledge not to raise taxes in any way.It's no wonder that when the government needed to address serious financial concerns, such as the mortgage crisis, they were helpless from a political standpoint. Spending on entitlements was locked in, government borrowing was locked in and tax rates were locked in. That's why we paid the bankers, the ones who caused the mess, all of the money to fix the problem. It was the only political option we had.The other problem is that it inevitably leads to deception of the public at large. The current "Debt Ceiling Crisis" is not a crisis at all except for the fact that it gave one faction of one party the ability to turn off the autopilot and crash the whole government if changes to spending were not made, changes to spending which had absolutely nothing to do with the debt ceiling at all. That is why they are doing it all wrong. We have built a system that allows the levers of government to be moved to crash the whole thing with no compromise, no checks and balances and no representation by anything like a majority of the electorate. The debt ceiling is a phony idea, passed by a Congress no longer in power to limits the amount of money the government can borrow to pay for things that have already been authorized by a Congress no longer in power and which are now (or were) held hostage by Members of Congress many of whom held no power back then. It is easy to pass tax cuts and it's easy to pass a "ceiling" on the amount of money the government can borrow, but neither of those things provides governance when the debts come due. Neither of those things provides governance when a minority of the House, or the Senate before them, or the House in 1994 were willing to bring the whole government to a halt, or worse. In those cases the Republic as it was designed requires agreement to govern, and agreement requires compromise of all of the parts. When take all the power, put it in a can and kick the can down the road you have no idea who you're kicking it to. You're doing it wrong.


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