October 20, 2013

A Plague On Both Their Houses

by Hal Gershowitz

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Mercutio, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, could have been speaking for most thinking American’s when he cried out “I am hurt. A plague on both your houses.”

America, or more specifically, the people, have been hurt by the conduct of both parties leading up to the temporary resolution of the budget and debt spectacle that played out last week in Washington. Shakespeare’s Mercutio, the reader may recall, died.  We, on the other hand, have just been badly wounded.  But we have been wounded by both parties we have elected (and consented) to govern us.

According to an ABC/ Washington Post poll, about three quarters of the people are disgusted with the Republicans and well over half are disgusted with the President of the United States. That’s a sad commentary.  The people are left brooding over which of our political Parties is the least worst. Our own indictment includes the leaders of both Houses of Congress as well as the President of the United States.

We did not hesitate, in our essay two weeks ago, to refer to those Republicans as fools who decided to use the budget and debt imbroglio to relegislate the Orwellian-named and ill-conceived Affordable Care Act. Leaders who zealously lead their followers into battles they know, as a certainty, they will lose can appropriately be classified as fools by almost any definition.

In the case of the budget and debt crisis, the apparent victors were, in our judgment, fools as well.  Every tactic and every utterance was calculated to gain strategic advantage in the 2014 mid-term elections, even if those tactics and utterances simply poured fuel on the fire consuming the confidence of the body politic in the politicians and the very system we depend on to govern us.

President Obama and his taking-head acolytes were particularly incendiary.  New lows in mud slinging were crafted in the bowels of Talking Points Central at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The Republicans who wouldn’t bow to President Obama’s, and Harry Reid’s policy of no negotiation were targeted as bomb throwers, suicide bombers, arsonists, assassins, deadbeats, terrorists and worse.  The already contentious political atmosphere could have not been made more poisonous.

Ironically, the Republicans, quite unintentionally, gave the President an opportunity to avoid the unprecedented ObamaCare rollout disaster that is in the process of going from bad to worse. It was an opportunity he was too stubborn to recognize.  Obama was so determined to defeat Republican efforts to delay implementation of ObamaCare that he went forward with the October 1st rollout that everyone in the Administration who knew a byte from a bite knew was going to be a disaster. And make no mistake about it.  The implementation of President Obama’s signature accomplishment has been, is, and will continue to be (for quite some time) an unmitigated disaster.  For the record, nearly 9.5 million Americans visited healthcare.gov during the week commencing October 1st. Of those, 99.7% (9,434,000) failed to make it to the enrollment page.  To President Obama this was a “glitch” and a “bump in the road.” To everyone else who knows anything about software architecture, and the old adage garbage-in, garbage-out, it has been a disaster of such proportions that it will not be quickly or smoothly (or inexpensively) remedied.  But that’s subject matter for another essay.

The mantra that the nation’s press rather uniformly trumpeted was that our very democracy was at stake in this debt-ceiling face-off between hard-line Republicans and the White House.  One prominent syndicated columnist ended an editorial opinion piece proclaiming that everyone who is for American democracy should “stand with the President.”

Well, not so fast.  In pushing through ObamaCare, one of the most transformative acts of legislation in our nation’s history along purely party lines with a majority of the population in opposition, the President assured the Congress and the people that he wouldn’t sign the legislation if it added so much as a dime to the deficit.  He also assured the people that it would result in a diminution of their health insurance premiums and that everyone who liked their current healthcare plans and their current doctors could keep them.  All, predictably and patently false. Neither side of this dispute was acquitting itself well as champions of our democracy.

Conversely, the Republicans and their supporters in the media claimed that there was really no debt-ceiling crisis because the government had ten times the revenue it needed to pay interest on its debt.  All we had to do was stiff other suppliers of goods and services for the billions we owed them.  How vacuous was that reasoning?

The government shutdown over the budget was deplorable, even contemptible, but it was far from unprecedented.  The government had to shutdown from November 14 to 19 in 1995 and from December 16, 1995 to January 8th 1996. The difference between the budget crises of the Clinton years and the Obama presidency is that very meaningful (and positive) compromises ultimately emerged from the divided governments of the Clinton years.  Remember, this is an Administration who’s Democratically controlled Senate has failed to pass a budget in any of the last five years.  Obama really doth protest too much.

We’ve actually defaulted a couple of times on our debt as well — once way back during the Monroe years and once somewhat more recently during the Carter years.  A default is terrible and very costly to the government and, ultimately, to the people, but it is not Armageddon, cataclysmic or catastrophic.  It is just very stupid.  And because it is just very stupid the markets would quickly adjust when we were through being stupid.

Constitutional scholars have debated each time a default crisis is threatened whether or not the debt limit can be raised under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution which, in effect, instructs Congress that the “debt of the United States shall not be questioned.”  It doesn’t say the President’s budget shall not be questioned.  In fact, it suggests to us that it means the President’s budget had better be questioned given that the debt cannot be (questioned).  The President’s and Harry Reid’s contention that there would be no negotiation over the debt crisis was every bit as absurd as the contention of some Republicans that scrapping ObamaCare was to be the price for raising the debt ceiling.

Look, as we wrote last week, we’re in a mess of ever- increasing debt.  It will continue to grow, and, in our opinion, unreasonably so.  The $642 billion deficit this year, while lower than last year (thanks to the sequester and higher taxes from a marginally stronger economy) will nonetheless represent an outlay that will be paid for with, you guessed it, precisely that much more debt.

Throughout most of our history Uncle Sam’s signature has always represented the world’s gold standard for credit worthiness.  Every federal employee and every elected official, regardless of party or political persuasion, has an equal obligation to keep it that way.

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3 responses to “A Plague On Both Their Houses”

  1. bernie fromm says:

    that’s the very best explanation of the stupidity and immaturity of our government I’ve read so far. are they deaf, ignorant, uncaring or all three?

  2. mark j levick says:

    Until his adoring media reports that their hero does not lead, does not compromise, does not govern and does not care about anything beyond the restructuring of American society to one of equality and fairness to those who are unable or unwilling to make a meaningful economic contribution to Society we are destined to slide down the very slippery slope toward insolvency in which case our debt cannot be paid by means other than devaluing the dollar by massive inflation. Think Argentina. Of more concern is the acceptance of the proposition that those who oppose Obama do so solely because he is Black by most liberal thinkers. In fact the only people playing the race card are Obama, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson and most black preachers and politicians. As long as political correctness trumps common sense and there are radical ideologues such as Ted Cruz and Mike Lee stirring the pot from the right we will be a Nation adrift in some very dangerous waters.

  3. John Fairfield says:

    As usual, a very good and complete indictment of the actors in this melodrama, but unfortunately comes down to admiring the problem. The crucial question is what can you and I do to achieve a resolution?

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