The Next Big Debt-Ceiling Fight

Yet another fight over once again raising America’s debt ceiling is coming up, and we expect it will be even uglier than usual. For one thing the September deadline will come as the presidential and congressional primaries are heating up, which always complicates things, and for another thing the federal government is more dysfunctional than ever.
Treasury Secretary has met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the matter, but Pelosi is for now insisting on a two-year budget deal. Several Republican Senators also want an actual budget instead of yet another continuing resolution that provides at least two years off from these every six months or so squabbles, but that’s easier said than done.
There hasn’t been an actual budget passed by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by a president for more than a decade, and you have to go back to the days of President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich to find one that balanced. Since then both parties have waited until the last minute before the global economic catastrophe that would result from the government defaulting on its very large debt, playing brinksmanship to extract whatever concessions the parties could gain from another, and wound up a with a deficit-spending resolution that kicked the can another six months down the road. This time will probably be the same, but different.
This time the congressional Democrats are more restive than usual, with Pelosi publicly feuding with several recently famous freshman members of her caucus, and all the Democratic presidential contenders pushing the party further to the left. Not long ago Pelosi was the Republican party’s poster girl for San Francisco-style liberalism, but these days she’s the relatively sane center of the Democratic party, and she’s always been a pragmatic enough politician to cut those last minute deals that saved the global economy from catastrophe. For the moment she seems firmly in control of her party, but September’s a long time from now.
For the foreseeable future President Donald Trump is firmly in control of the Republican party, but that’s not reassuring. Trump ran on the argument that he’s history’s greatest master of the art of the deal, based on his business record, but so far he’s proved no more successful in negotiating deals with the congressional Democrats than he was with his six-times bankrupt casinos. While he “tweets” schoolyard taunts against Senate majority leader “Cryin'” Chuck Schumer and t”Nervous Nancy” Pelosi, he’s yet to best them in a political showdown on almost anything. He crashed claimed credit for the last of those occasional partial government showdowns, then blamed the Democrats when the shutdown didn’t poll well, and wound up signing off on another continuing resolution that fully funded lots of bleeding heart social programs beloved by the Democrats.
This time around should be the same. The talk radio talkers will grouse about Trump’s concessions, but they’ll quickly move on to what the damned Democrats did, and Trump’s die-hard fans will forgive him anything. There are also a few on-the-fence voters who will give him credit for his centrist pragmatism, nobody will be able to blame him for the default that brought down the global economy, and that this point nobody cares about those several Republican senators’ old-fashioned idea of getting back to passing budgets with bi-partisan support and a presidential signature. Trump’s position of strength gives him every incentive to cave.
At this point large portions of both parties only care about depriving the other party of any tangible victory, and won’t yield an inch toward any kind of national consensus about how to spend the public’s money. They wouldn’t mind a global economic catastrophe, either, so long as they could blame it on the other side. As the presidential and congressional primary races heat up, those elements will have some influence on the debate.
Still, we expect this time around will be largely the same as the last many times around. We no longer have much faith in the leaders of either party, but we retain a cynical and hopeful faith in human nature. None of our elected leaders want to have been around during a global economic catastrophe, if only because it’s a bad career move, even if they could plausibly blame it on the other side. At some point, according to our observation of recent politics and human nature, both sides will eventually blink, and both will get enough and give enough for their voters to brag and grouse about.
Which is about the best we can hope for these days. That idea Pelosi and those prominent Senate Republicans have about a two-year budget seems pretty far-fetched for the moment. The idea that it might be balanced is preposterous.

— Bud Norman

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