August 1, 2011 [LINK / comment]
Leaders compromise on debt ceiling
Since I expected a deal to be reached before the August 2 "deadline" (?), I'm not particularly moved one way or the other by the compromise that was reached late Sunday night. It won't satisfy anyone, and of course, that's what happens when stalemates are terminated. After the Senate rejected the House debt ceiling bill over the weekend, it looked like Doomsday was nigh, and the White House held emergency negotiations. Today the House passed the "Budget Control Act of 2011" which sets up a series of conditional hikes in the debt ceiling, offset by reductions in future spending. See politico.com.
From what I can tell, the budget cuts appear very modest compared to what had been discussed. Claims that it will cut spending by $2 trillion or whatever over the next ten years are meaningless to me, since there is no way Congress can force future spending cuts, and no one can foresee future contingencies that might require emergency spending hikes. Backloading spending cuts to future years so as to avoid politically costly short-term pain is one of the oldest tricks on Capitol Hill, and frankly I'm surprised they still get away with it. The only figures that matter to me are spending levels for the next fiscal year.
Anyone who exults that Congress finally got the job done is missing the bigger point, I think. The fact that we came this close to defaulting is a terrible indictment of our very political system, in which government leaders refuse to lead. President Obama has been a virtual non-entity, caving in to pressure from the House Republicans, and not getting hardly anything in return. Comparisons between him and Jimmy Carter are starting to be heard more and more often. Neither Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid nor House Speaker John Boehner have done much better. Some Democrats have compared the intransigent "my way or the highway" approach of the Tea Party faction to terrorism, but I think that's a bit extreme. Extortionist, yes. Sadly, that is how factions in the Republican Party have gotten their way over the past ten or so years: the anti-tax crowd and the anti-abortion crowd repeatedly threaten to defect or just refuse to vote if their demands are not met. And every time, the "mainstream" Republican leaders cave in, fearing they will lose the next election otherwise. So now that same approach is being applied to the national stage, as America is "held hostage" by the right wing. (Pretty ironic, since that used to be Rush Limbaugh's slogan during the Clinton administration.) Anti-tax Godfather Grover Norquist, who appeared as a panelist on ABC's This Week on Sunday, is just about as happy as a clam. Repeating the main theme of my op-ed column on the subject, I commented on WHSV-3's Facebook page:
This is exactly what we would expect to happen when the people forget about constitutional principles of limited government and allow the political system to turn into a majoritarian democracy in which two established parties engage in a perpetual tug-of-war, with voters choosing whichever side promises the most benefits. When self-interest runs amuck, factionalism and chaos are the inevitable result.
About the only positive thing to come out of this showdown was the first public appearance by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from gunshot wounds she received in January. Welcome back, Gabby!
Will this compromise actually resolve anything, or is it just a pause while the two sides regroup for the next round? Maybe the 12-person joint select committee ("Supercommittee") will serve its intended purpose in making tough budget choices, but it merely confirms the ineffectiveness of the U.S. Congress as it is presently constituted and organized. Supposedly, there would be across-the-board cuts ("sequestration") if they fail to reach an agreement, but Congress always finds loopholes to evade such provisions. This was just not a good time for either side to push for a "grand bargain" over fiscal policy. All I can really say at that anyone who makes a big deal out of who won or who lost in this monumental showdown is doing a disservice to the country. Frankly, I've grown weary of these tedious polemics over the debt ceiling.
Gay marriage in New York state
So let's talk about one of those fun "wedge issues" -- gay marriage! Thanks to a law passed by the New York legislature earlier this year, it is front and center once again. The first gay couples entered into the state of wedded bliss (if not exactly "holy matrimony") last week. See Washington Post.
Earlier this year, a Ninth Circuit Federal court which ruled that the California law banning gay marriages was unconstitutional, while another judge ruled that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was invalid. Our armed forces are now integrating those of different sexual orientation, another grand social experiment. I hope it goes well, but it won't be easy. More ammunition for social conservatives!
In a discussion on Facebook, a few months ago, I tried to refute the widespread notion that opposition to gay marriage signifies hate or bigotry, while acknowledging that some Republicans shamelessly use gay-baiting. "To me, marriage is an ancient social institution that predates the law, and is not a matter of 'rights.' But if society as a whole decides that gays should have the 'right to marry,' it should be decided by popular referendum or by constitutional amendment, not by elite judges."
Last month, the Obama administration announced that it will support the repeal of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. See Washington Post. This came after Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would not defend the law in any court cases that may arise. That comes dangerously close to violating the constitutional obligation to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed..." (Article II Section 3.) Personally, I think that law is of dubious constitutionality, but that is an issue for the judicial branch to decide.
Apropos of this issue, I was pleased that former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman "came out of the closet" last year. I had the pleasure to meet him at a local Republican campaign rally in October 2005. If I had known he was gay, I could have told him that I once put a link to the Log Cabin Republicans on one of the local GOP Web sites I used to manage. (Nobody noticed.)
And last but not least, I watched the LOL hilarious movie In And Out, starring Kevin Kline, a week or so ago. (Remember the ending? "Macho, macho man ... I want to be a macho man!" ) It was made in the late 90s, when gay culture was quickly moving into the mainstream. Maybe another 15 years from now, gay marriage itself will be fully embraced by mainstream American culture, and all these controversies will be seen in the same light as debates over teaching evolution in public schools. Nobody knows.