Debt maneuverings bode ill for future

The great debt limit crisis of 2011 is over. We will be living with its repercussions for years to come.

Here are some of the things we are likely to see:

» Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominations used to be low-key affairs. Some nominees were more controversial than others, and the political party that didn’t hold the White House might raise some objections. Some might vote against the nominee.

But nomination hearings were perfunctory, and every nominee was fairly quickly approved by a majority up-or-down vote. That changed with the Bork nomination in 1987, and we have seen ever-escalating political wars over nearly every Supreme Court nominee since.

Get ready for the Debt Limit wars. They will be far worse. Until this year, raising the debt ceiling was a bipartisan non-event. From now on, each time the debt ceiling has to be raised, we will face a major, fiercely partisan war. Each time, the war will be debilitating to our economy and our standing in the international financial markets.

» I also fear we have seen just the first of what will turn out to be a new kind of partisan war — the pledge war. The reason it has become so difficult to reach agreement on reductions to our deficits and debt is that only one side of the budget is up for debate.

Powerful interest groups have been forcing Republican candidates to sign a pledge that they will never, under any circumstances, vote to increase federal revenues in any shape or form.

This pledge was the direct cause of the ridiculous sight of Republican House members turning down the opportunity for massive cuts in spending because they would have had to accept in the process proposals to eliminate tax breaks for oil companies and corporate jet owners.

Had they broken their pledges, they knew they would face tea party primary challenges. Those of us who live in Delaware know all too well how even a well-qualified and revered elected official can be defeated in a Republican primary.

» Making policy at the end of a gun is a terrible and ultimately impossible way to run a government, but that is what we have just witnessed. To some degree, those holding the gun, those bound by pledges that made any kind of compromise impossible, won.

Mark my words: Other groups may now be tempted to enforce pledges on their elected representatives.

In the next few months, you may see serious efforts to institute “no cuts to Social Security or Medicare” pledges.

When people begin to witness the destruction of popular and effective federal programs, there may be “no cuts in domestic discretionary spending” pledges.

In a system where compromise has been part of the political fabric since the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a legislature filled with partisans who have made binding, no-compromise pledges is a serious threat to our survival.

To see how a pledge-dominated political system can destroy a government, take a look at California. There, a no-compromise referendum form of government has fixed things so that neither the governor nor the Legislature can do anything as the state’s higher-education system, once the envy of the world, slides into mediocrity, At a local level, caps on property taxes are destroying K-12 public education. The result is that California’s children will be far less ready to compete in a globalized economy where education is the key to success.

» None of what just happened was inevitable, and we still have time to limit the damage done. We know how to reduce the deficit.

The solution is to return to the policies of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton that generated surpluses just over 10 years ago. Late last year, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, who co-chaired the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, laid out the framework to reduce the debt and get us back on track. The key element is simple, in fact, very simple. All parts of the budget must be on the table — expenditures and revenue.

The alternative, where some legislators are pledged to never raise taxes and others are pledged to never cut expenditures, would be exactly like keeping your boiler from cycling on and off by tying down the safety valve.

The results would be the same.

Originally published 7 Aug 2011 on