Monday, April 25, 2011

The perils of divided government

The Bigger Picture
Published on March 15th 2011 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau

Two weeks ago, America’s divided national government averted a federal government shutdown when Congressional Republicans and Democrats reached agreement on some relatively minor spending cuts to the President’s 2011 budget. But the reality of this compromise was that politicians in both parties simply agreed to kick the can down the road for two weeks, thus setting the stage for another confrontation at the end of this week.
Now if you think the notion of funding your national government two weeks at a time sounds rather ridiculous, you would be correct. It is ridiculous! However, given the decidedly poisonous political atmosphere that currently pervades our nation’s capitol, it wouldn’t really come as much of a surprise to see this bi-monthly political brinksmanship continue until the end of this spring. That’s because some Republicans in Congress, despite all of their tough talk about reining in government spending, are afraid of how voters might react if the government shuts down because the President refuses to go along with their spending cuts.
The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, is a veteran Republican lawmaker who remembers what happened the last time a newly elected Republican majority in Congress tried to cram its budget cuts down the throat of a Democratic President. In 1995, and at the behest of putative 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, Republicans refused to compromise with President Bill Clinton on the federal budget. This led to non-essential government workers being furloughed and the suspension of non-essential services from November 14 through November 19, 1995 and December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996.
Like their present day Republican counterparts, the Gingrich Republicans had wrested control of Congress from the Democrats in the 1994 mid-term elections and were determined to force President Clinton to accept their cuts in government spending. The Gingrich led Congressional Republicans also initially avoided a government shutdown by agreeing to a series of continuing resolutions to fund the US Government’s spending, essentially kicking the can down the road just like present day Republicans are.
However, in order to continue operating the federal government when it is running a budget deficit, Congress also needs to periodically increase the cap or ceiling on the total amount of US Government debt that the US Treasury is authorized to issue. Gingrich believed that if he and his Republican colleagues refused to raise the US debt ceiling, President Clinton would then be forced to cave in to their demands for spending cuts.

But President Clinton proved himself to be an adept poker player by calling the Gingrich Republicans’ bluff of refusing to raise the debt ceiling, thus causing the federal government shut down. Republicans tried to blame President Clinton for the consequences, which included over 200,000 passport applications that were not processed, the closure of 368 national parks and a halt to the cleanup of toxic waste disposal sites around the country.
But despite 2012 Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s continuing claims to have won this standoff, most Republicans grudgingly acknowledge that President Clinton won this poker game because Republicans eventually ended the budget and debt ceiling stand off on Clinton’s terms rather than on their terms. As a consequence, voters also blamed Gingrich and Congressional Republicans for a pointless cessation of government services and re-elected President Clinton by a resounding margin in the subsequent 1996 national elections.
But the current Republican majority in Congress includes 87 newly elected members who have no memory of what happened to Republicans sixteen years ago and who have also promised their Tea Party supporters that they will not compromise with President Obama. So although the Tea Party types are currently willing to go along with their wiser Republican counterparts in kicking the can down the road to avoid a government shutdown, they are also girding for a confrontation in June when the federal debt ceiling will have to be raised. I’ll discuss their fallacious reasoning next week.

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