Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The awful debt-ceiling deal

The tunnel named after the late Tip O'Neill is apparently leaking quite a bit these days, but the legacy of the former Massachusetts Congressman is more impressive to me than ever in the current political landscape. O'Neill served 10 years as Speaker of the House, much of it when Ronald Reagan ("the most ignorant man who had ever occupied the White House," according to O'Neill, who died before George W. Bush came on the national scene) was president. Reagan, and other Republicans elected in 1980, went to Washington to "make government smaller" -- GOP-speak for lowering taxes on the wealthy and dismantling the New Deal safety net. O'Neill, ridiculed publicly by arrogant conservatives as being old and overweight, used strength and charm to stand up against Reagan and his cohorts, virtually single-handedly absorbing the blows and holding the line.

Alas, O'Neill is gone and the Democrats seem to have no one like him in a leadership role. (Nancy Pelosi, House majority leader, is probably closest, but she doesn't run the House any more.) President Obama appears to get his clock cleaned by Republicans on every contentious issue. His natural inclination to compromise has been repeatedly taken advantage of by an opposition that is virtually unwilling to give any ground -- and therefore all "agreements" give the far right almost everything they want. It's discouraging.

The debt-ceiling agreement that leaders on both sides are touting today -- and which passed the House last night and will likely get Senate approval today -- is a complete capitulation to a group of elected officials who were willing to sacrifice the stability of the nation and the global economy to make sure that the rich in American don't have to pay a single penny more in taxes. Joe Nocera in The New York Times calls them "terrorists" who are "waging jihad on the American people." This group of Tea Partiers and their enablers in Congress -- only several dozen members -- give the impression that they will go to any length, including national crisis, to get what they want. It's like playing chicken against a crazy person: you have to get out of the way because he will take you both down.

This all reminds me of the story in the Old Testament where two women come to King Solomon, both claiming that they are the mother of a particular child, and the wise king declares that the child will be split in two. Of course, the strategy was that the child's actual mother wouldn't want to see any harm come to the boy, and so when one of the women cries out, "No! Let her have him!" the king knows she is the true mother. The Democrats keep flinching and crying out. They are not willing to let the country default in its fiscal obligations as of midnight tonight, and so they gave in. The Republicans, whose reasonable elements are shouted down by the far right, are willing to burn the entire Republic to the ground. As a result, the deal voted on today requires sacrifices from the poor, the elderly, the young, the sick and the hard working, while those at the top of the economic pyramid have to give up nothing.

Despite the political rhetoric, the deal will hurt the economy. In the meantime, our biggest national crisis -- millions of unemployed -- goes unaddressed. In times like this government needs to spend more, not less. The stimulus back in Obama's first year needed to be two or three times bigger, but he gave in to the right. Now the economy will suffer more, and the GOP will pin it on Democrats in 2012. It's hard to see an upside here.