Dysfunction, the Debt Ceiling and Other Derelictions of Duty

It’s hard for someone of my political proclivities not to relish the manifest dysfunctions in the Republican party. But they also make me very anxious.

Like many of you, I suppose, I’m sick to death of reading what Trump said about immigrants, Carson about Muslims, Bush about voting rights and folks who line up for “free stuff,” etc. I nevertheless relish the thought of the voters they’re alienating.

Yet I can’t help worrying that the Republican nominee might win because the alienated voters are so alienated from our political process that they won’t go to the polls. Can hardly bear to think who that might be.

More immediately, it’s the warring factions in the House Republican majority that make me anxious. It’s one thing for the ultra-right to insist on yet another vote to repeal Obamacare. But to take such uncompromising stances that they drive out a very conservative speaker — and stymie the effort to replace him — is, to me, downright scary.

Because we can’t have laws unless the House passes them. And we urgently need some.

The most urgent is a bill that raises the ceiling on the amount of debt the federal government can incur. Without it, the government will default on debts it’s already incurred, i.e., interest and/or principal it owes on bonds it’s issued.

Either that or it will have to drastically and immediately cut spending, which will mean default of a different sort.

State and local governments won’t receive funds they’ve rightly counted on for a wide variety of programs and services. Contractors won’t get paid for goods they’ve supplied or work they’ve performed — and thus may not have the funds to pay their employees and subcontractors.

Seniors and younger people with severe disabilities won’t get their Social Security benefits. Healthcare services they’ve received as Medicare beneficiaries won’t get reimbursed. Nor will doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers who’ve treated people covered by Medicaid.

Veterans will get stiffed too. Likewise the 45.5 million or so people who depend on SNAP (food stamp) benefits to stave off hunger.

Not all these suspended payments may be needed to keep the debt below the current ceiling. But it’s unclear whether the Treasury Department can pick and choose. A Credit Suisse newsletter issued when we’d hit the debt ceiling two years ago suggested it couldn’t.

And even if it could, how could the administration responsibly decide who should get paid and who not?

One way or the other, everyday people would suffer harms — and in more ways than the foregoing indicates. Investors would, of course, decide that Treasury bonds weren’t a safe harbor for their money. So they’d require a higher interest rate on new bonds.

That would produce a ripple effect on other interests rates. Businesses might then pull back on borrowing for investments that create jobs.

Anybody who can’t pay cash on the barrel head — to replace a defunct car, for example, or buy a house — would face a more costly loan.

Lots of people who carry credit card debt would have to pay higher interest rates because charges are often linked to what banks charge on corporate loans.

Well, this may be apocalyptic thinking. The House will have a speaker because Boehner’s said he’ll stay on till his caucus chooses someone else. And he can readily get a bipartisan debt ceiling bill passed by allowing a vote when a majority of his own party won’t get on board.

So could his successor, if Republicans find one who suits enough of them well enough — and who agrees to accept the job — before the early November drop-dead date on the debt ceiling.

Whether s/he would breach the so-called Hastert rule, however, is an open question. The Freedom Caucus — the immediate source of the disarray — reportedly won’t vote for speaker who doesn’t pledge to abide by it. This and many other things.

Say, as I think we can, that House Republicans don’t plunge us into a genuine debt crisis. We’ll just move on to the next — the mid-December expiration of the continuing resolution that’s the reason we haven’t already had a government shutdown.

Look for another cliffhanger, as the hard-line right-wingers, plus some other members who’ve got particular axes to grind refuse to vote for a budget the Senate can pass — and the President will sign.

Wiser heads may again prevail, since Republicans got blamed for the last shutdown. But one never knows. And one surely doesn’t know what sort of deal Republican Congressional leaders and the White House will broker to either avert a shutdown or end it.

What we can, I think, know is that the uncompromising stances we’re witnessing bode fill for policies and programs that significantly affect poor and near-poor people — both those that shield them from utter destitution and those that give them a fair shot at more secure, fulfilling lives.

So much neglected business on both fronts. Overdue reforms to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example. A fix to prevent major upcoming cuts to benefits for severely-disabled former workers and their dependents. Fixes to prevent later cuts to Social Security retirement benefits.

A replacement for No Child Left Behind that preserves the focus on equal educational opportunity, but without the unintended incentives to “teach to the test” — and test overmuch. The approaching end of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Well, I could go on, but I think the point is made. All these issues — and others awaiting action — are complex. And people of good will have different views on what our federal policies should be. Nothing new about this, except the specifics.

What does seem new to me is the evident lack of interest in policymaking among the radically right-wing members of the House — those whom New York Times columnist Gail Collins referred to as “rabid ferrets” when we were last on the verge of falling over a “fiscal cliff.”

John Nichols at The Nation argues, as his headline says, that “[t]he Republican party has become not only anti-government, but anti-governing.” I wouldn’t paint the party with such a broad brush, but believe it’s true for an influential number of members in the House.

And that makes me very anxious indeed.

UPDATE: When I published this post, the drop-dead date for the debt limit increase was November 5. Later that morning, the Treasury Secretary informed Congressional leaders that the date now is no later than November 3.

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