Washington’s Latest Deal: Little Cause for Celebration
By Lee H. Hamilton
“The need to raise the debt ceiling, in other words, no longer reins in spending. Instead, it manufactures crises and exacerbates tensions within Congress.”
You can understand why President Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle sought to cast their end-of-October budget deal in the best possible light. They avoided a potentially catastrophic national default. They reduced the possibility of a government shutdown. And they raised the debt ceiling until March, 2017, taking that bargaining chip off the table until the next president is in the White House.
For a last-minute, secret backroom deal, that’s not too shabby. It was bipartisan and took modest steps in the direction of political stability and fiscal responsibility. And it was vastly preferable to the alternative, which would likely have produced a government shutdown, the possibility of a default on the national debt, and certain fiscal chaos.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that for all their hard work, our political leaders indulged in two bad habits that they really need to kick, because they wreak havoc with effective and efficient government and cost taxpayers a pile of money.
First, while they gave themselves some breathing room before the next time the debt ceiling has to be raised, they will nonetheless have to raise the debt ceiling eventually. They should have abolished it, or at least suspended it.
The debt limit was instituted during World War I, when Congress handed over to the Treasury the ability to sell bonds to fund government needs without getting permission every time. In essence, the debt ceiling was a way to keep tabs on the Treasury, while still allowing the government to pay its bills for spending that had already been approved.
It has outlived that reasonable goal. These days, the debt ceiling is a political pawn, used repeatedly as leverage by opposition parties to make demands of the President. It has driven the persistent national game of “chicken” that has so tarnished Congress’s image in recent decades.
Most political leaders recognize that defaulting on the national debt – which is what failing to raise the debt ceiling would cause – is an inconceivable outcome for a responsible nation. By destroying our creditworthiness, it would devastate consumers, taxpayers, businesses, retirees who invested in government bonds, the financial markets, and our ability to conduct normal relations with trading partners and foreign governments. Moreover, the legislative maneuvering surrounding each debt ceiling bill consumes huge amounts of legislative time that is better spent on other matters.
The need to raise the debt ceiling, in other words, no longer reins in spending. Instead, it manufactures crises and exacerbates tensions within Congress.
The second bad habit is equally pernicious: the budget deal did little to shift Congress from its reliance on continuing resolutions. The CR, as it’s known, was designed to keep government operating for a few days or weeks while congressional negotiators worked out the budget. In recent decades, though, it has become the way we fund the government. It’s hard to find a member of Congress who defends this process, but most of them end up voting for it.
Continuing resolutions bypass the appropriations bills written by specialized committees and provide a favored few interests a bonanza. They also keep the federal government – and hence state and local agencies that rely on federal commitments – in “handcuffs,” as a recent article in Politico put it. “Under the continuing resolution,” the website noted after the most recent CR passed at the end of September, “multi-year projects…faced new delays. Hiring departments closed. Budget officials began to tally losses as their typically powerful purchasing power dwindled. For pretty much the rest of this year, and perhaps 2016, too, the U.S. government will effectively be in a state of suspended animation.”
The CR puts the government on automatic pilot, avoids hundreds of difficult funding and policy decisions, and has become a substitute for working hard to pass a budget by the regular process. It lacks transparency, sidesteps good budgeting, puts all the power in the hands of a few congressional leaders, and invites Congress to act in a crisis mode.
Do you want the Congress to work better? If so, ask your favorite member to think big and not lock into a failing system. A good start would be to kick these two bad habits.
Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
Quotes on the Issues
HR 3189 Fed Oversight Reform and Modernization Act of 2015
“the bill would severely impair the Federal Reserve’s ability to carry out its congressional mandate and would be a grave mistake, detrimental to the economy and the American people.” Fed Chair Janet Yellen
On Fighting ISIS
“PRESSED ABOUT his strategy for fighting the Islamic State, a petulant-sounding President Obama insisted Monday, as he has before, that his critics have offered no concrete alternatives for action in Syria and Iraq, other than putting “large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground.” This claim was faulty in two respects. First, few if any White House critics are proposing a U.S. ground operation on the scale of the previous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, military experts both within and outside the administration have proposed more modest measures that could significantly increase the pressure on the Islamic State if the president were to adopt them.
“Mr. Obama is right that the route to destroying the Islamic State lies in finding local partners in the Middle East and elsewhere who can stabilize their countries with U.S. and other international support. If that broad strategy is correct, however, its implementation has been consistently underpowered. U.S. aid to Iraqi and Syrian allies has been too small and too slow to arrive; airstrikes have been conducted at a fraction of the pace of previous campaigns.
“The United States has not used its leverage to bring about essential political change, including the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and significant steps by the Shiite-led Iraqi government to reconcile with Sunni leaders. In response to failures, Mr. Obama has tended to escalate U.S. action in small increments unlikely to make a decisive difference — like his recent decision to dispatch fewer than 50 Special Operations troops to Syria.
“What would make a difference? Numerous military experts have proposed that the United States stiffen the Iraqi forces attempting to retake the town of Ramadi, and Arabs and Kurds advancing toward the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, by deploying more Special Operations forces who could act as forward air controllers and advise on battlefield tactics. Mr. Obama could also send advisers to Iraqi battalions; currently, U.S. personnel operate only at the division level. More specialized U.S. assets, such as advanced drones, could be used to back local forces.
“For more than a year, some experts have been urging Mr. Obama to begin the direct delivery of weapons, ammunition and other equipment to Kurdish forces in Iraq as well as Sunni tribal fighters. The administration has persisted in trying to route this materiel through the Iraqi government, only to see the deliveries slowed or blocked. The administration could begin direct deliveries while exerting more pressure on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to follow through on promises to reach political accords with Sunnis and Kurds.
“Secretary of State John F. Kerry has helped to launch a diplomatic effort to end the Syrian civil war, but only by not making it conditional on Mr. Assad’s departure. Mr. Obama could order steps to increase the pressure on Mr. Assad in those talks, such as the creation of safe zones in collaboration with Jordan and Turkey where refugees and opposition forces could gather.
‘None of these measures would lead to the immediate collapse of the Islamic State or ensure that it did not carry out more attacks in Western capitals. They would, however, make it easier to build the local partnerships Mr. Obama says he seeks. Many present and former U.S. officials believe they are feasible. The president would be wise to set aside his defensiveness and reconsider them.” From Washington Post Editorial Board via the House Armed Services Committee Communications. Washington Post
HR 511 Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015
“By expanding sovereignty to commercial and other enterprises owned by tribes, H.R. 511 would take away federally guaranteed labor rights from hundreds of thousands of American workers (both Native and non-Native) and give businesses owned by tribes an advantage over identical businesses not owned by tribal governments. Additionally, thousands of workers employed in commercial enterprises on tribal lands are not tribal members and cannot have any influence or say over tribal policy-making. For example, nearly 75% of the 600,000 workers employed in tribal casinos are not tribal members.” House Minority Whip Office
A new video released by ISIS warns of an impending attack on New York City. The video mentions Times Square and purports to show an explosive device being put together and a bomber zipping his jacket over a suicide belt.
The New York City Police Department said it was aware of the video and was deploying additional members of its new anti-terrorism squad out of an abundance of caution. CNN
H.R.4038 American SAFE Act of 2015
““If I was to offer [administration officials] some constructive proposals, it would be to say, ‘help members see why the [Republican] bill is going to essentially raise a threshold so that nobody’s gonna get certified. I mean, I think it’s important to make that point a little more explicit.”” Rep Keith Ellison (D-MN) Ellison is a Muslim. – Roll Call
“Congress’s number one responsibility must be to keep Americans safe, and Democrats have no greater priority than making sure it does so. We must do everything within reason to prevent dangerous terrorists from crossing our borders. That’s why our nation has in place a rigorous and comprehensive screening and background check system for Syrian and Iraqi refugees – the vast majority of whom are women and children – fleeing from ISIS terror. “I voted against this bill for several reasons. First, it will do nothing to keep America safe beyond the very thorough steps already taken. Second, I believe it creates new requirements that will make it harder for our already-shorthanded security agencies to fulfill their critical missions. Finally, this legislation feeds into the fear we’ve witnessed in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, in which America’s highest values and strongest principles are at risk of being sidelined, including our nation’s commitment to victims of oppression and tyranny seeking safety and freedom on our shores. We must never forget that America’s distinction as the home of the brave cannot be separated from our role as the land of the free. I continue to believe that we need not sacrifice our compassion for our safety – we can and must maintain both.” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.