Grand Bargains and Great Pumpkins

In April I wrote about the debt ceiling, never dreaming for a second that the U.S. government would be so dysfunctional, so self-destructive that the debt ceiling would still be an issue in late July.

I should have known better. It’s like I don’t even know my own government.

But the wacky folks in D.C. have taken the lifting of the debt ceiling, what Mitch Daniels once called “routine housekeeping” back when he was in charge of money under Bush the Second, what had always passed before and turned it into an opportunity to: make hay, put on a show, run for president, be on TV, make a barbaric yawp. And multi-task!

Yes, multi-task (which is French for “doing many things half-assed;” See also: antonym, accomplishment). Because what better way to deal with every single problem (real or imaginary; short, medium, and long terms) than by simultaneously tackling them alongside an essential, necessary bill-payment procedure?

Exactly. So now, holding the entire country hostage, holding our creditors hostage, the government will now, please, tackle the debt, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security[1], a little tax reform (maybe), and jobs, jobs, jobs. If they can just strike a deal, a grand bargain.

Which looks likely, ‘cause they’ve shown so much promise in the areas of compromise, working well with others, and deal-making in the past.

As any good test-taker will tell you, SAT Prep 101 dictates that one answers the obvious questions first to get them out of the way before tackling the objects requiring more time and effort. A fruit-picker will say similar. Turns out it’s a pretty practical strategy for other areas of life as well. So, if Capitol Hill had any appreciation for practical management, it would (1.) Raise the debt ceiling (grumbling and grandstanding about it are optional). (2.) Then it would do something else: tax reform OR debt reduction OR entitlements OR…you get the picture. (3.) Then it would do something else again. Preferably, for the sake of the nation, steps 2 and 3 would be things the majority seems to agree with: simplifying the tax code, means testing for Medicare/Medicaid, and authorizing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate drug and care prices with pharmaceutical companies and health care providers, just as the VA does.[2]

Of course, following this sort of plan would definitely require better time management skills in order to fit in the usual rounds of television appearances. Legislators might have to sacrifice Really Important Things—like writing bills that have zero chance of passage just to make a point and/or create more drama (because there’s so little of that in our lives). And House of Representatives, this goes double for you. You knew that your Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment/debt ceiling FrankenBill would never pass the Senate and would face a presidential veto even if it did. So that was an entire day plus. Do you need more to do? Too much time on your hands? Such an egregious waste of time and your constituents are aging here just waiting on you to get your collective act together.

But waiting on The Hill, the federal government, to get its collective act together, to raise the debt ceiling is like waiting for businesses to create jobs, jobs, jobs. They’re sitting on financial resources but not hiring because of lack of demand (and, oh, there’s demand but people don’t have jobs or living wages and damn-the-demand, they’ll just do without. Again.) and “uncertainty”—which, as sure as God made little green apples, is self-perpetuated by the failure to hire (and hire at a fair wage), which creates lack of demand, which creates uncertainty.

It’s like waiting for Godot or waiting for the Great Pumpkin. The American People have now been reduced to little Linuses, clutching our little blue blankets in a pumpkin patch, waiting for something that never comes while we contemplate our existence in this great big world.

Don’t know about you, but I’m getting impatient. Raise the damn roof, kids. (And then for goodness’ sake, pass an actual budget– not another continuing resolution.) This pumpkin patch is cold and the ground is hard and my blankie needs washed.

[1] Although, as smarter people than I have pointed out, Social Security is not technically a problem: it’s a closed-loop system and can technically only pay out what it brings in. Had Congress not borrowed from the surpluses of the Social Security fund, it would be self-sustaining. So now there is a problem to solve: there needs to be a plan to pay back the Social Security Administration for funds loaned. Or will we default on that debt too?

[2] There’s an episode of The West Wing where Toby asks Bruno how to make an obvious but politically tricky thing palatable. Bruno says something like “You mean all this time this thing’s been a problem and the other guy didn’t fix it?” I think of that line every time I think about Medicare and Medicaid not negotiating the prices they pay when, clearly, they’re buying in bulk. $100 billion could be saved annually by doing, yet again, the painfully obvious thing.



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