How Does the Conventional Wisdom Become Conventional? ("Cliff" and "Ceiling" Edition)

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Especially for those who understand very little about budget policy – that, is, for nearly everyone with a life – the words that we use can vividly frame the debate.  Fed Chairman Bernanke's invention of the term "fiscal cliff" has had a particularly unfortunate effect on the current national discussion about spending and taxes.  The issues at stake are substantively different from anything resembling a cliff-like situation -- the decline in the economy would be gradual, and there would be no "vertical climb" necessary to return to where we started.  Some bad and unnecessary things will happen if current law is not changed, but Bernanke's metaphor is just plain misleading.  Dangerously so.

I made this argument in my most recent Verdict column, and over the past few weeks a veritable cottage industry has emerged, with various commentators trying to undo the damage that the "cliff" framing has done.  Unfortunately, once an issue is framed, it is exceedingly difficult to change that framing.  Among other things, it can accurately be said that people who are arguing about framing are talking about form and not substance, and thus missing the real issue.  Those who benefit from the initial mis-framing can then complain that everyone else is engaged in meaningless word play.

Jon Stewart, who is otherwise usually quite savvy about such things, recently made matters worse by mocking the people who have tried to correct the mistaken impression that Bernanke’s error has created.  Stewart described it this way (his voice dripping with his trademark sarcasm): “So in order to solve a problem of numbers, they want to fix the words.”  He made it seem as if there really is a big, cliff-like problem, but that politicians and pundits are trying to pretend that it is not there. In fact, however, the opposite is true.  (In his defense, Stewart and his staff of writers had managed to find a hilarious collection of talking heads trying to coin different terms.  One poor soul came up with "fiscal garden," at which point he wandered off into his own metaphor, becoming so lost, so quickly that he started to talk about aphids, of all things.  What's not to mock?!)

Does the framing matter?  Of course it does.  Not only is everyone talking about cliffs, but they are using synonyms like "Armaggedon," "apocalypse," "catastrophe," "explosion," and so on.  (That would clearly not be happening if the initial framing had set us up to think about this as a deadline to prevent, say, a "slow, unnecessary bleed.")  Given that so many anti-deficit zealots have used those very words -- apocalypse, train-wreck, etc. -- to describe the supposed long-term debt "conflagration" that WE MUST DEAL WITH RIGHT NOW, it is not surprising that polls show large numbers of people believing that the "cliff" is the threat of deficits becoming too large, even though the real problem is that they will become too small.

There is political advantage at stake, obviously.  The local CBS television affiliate in Washington, D.C., recently replaced their usual station identification during commercial breaks with a “Fiscal Cliff Countdown” clock (similar to the idiotic "National Debt Clock" that the Republicans placed on stage throughout their convention earlier this year), showing the days, hours, and minutes remaining until we supposedly plunge to our collective demise.  The fine print on that screen revealed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was sponsoring that promotion -- that is, they had paid the TV station to hype the supposed cliff.  The screen encouraged viewers to contact their congressmen, to express their views and concerns about the cliff.  If a hyper-partisan group like the Chamber is seizing the "cliff" language, it is a sure thing that the polling has convinced them that it is to their advantage to keep the public riled up about this relatively minor issue.

The major issue that the country faces -- how to deal with Republican hostage-taking, as they again refuse to raise the debt ceiling without extracting a "price" (Boehner's word) from the Democrats -- has also been framed badly.  In one of my recent posts discussing that issue, I suggested that Obama's team might have rejected an argument based on the 14th Amendment because they feared that it would be too easy for the other side to dismiss it as a technicality.  "I'm sorry, but you're telling me Obama's going to borrow more money because Section 4 of the 14th Amendment says something about 'validity' of the debt?!"  I suggested that the trilemma argument that Professor Dorf and I have been advocating would not be subject to such easy demagoguery, because it is not based on an obscure constitutional provision, but on simple separation of powers issues that involve reining in presidential prerogatives.

One of our regular reader/commenters, however, responded quite reasonably that even our argument might be easily dismissed as a bit too clever.  He wrote: "[I]f the President took unilateral action to issue debt above the statutory limit it would be a disaster from a political point.  The American public wants this settled by compromise. They don't like it when official[s] craft cute legal arguments around a problem, even when those arguments are valid."  I am not sure (genuinely not sure, not merely couching disagreement in less confrontational terms) whether he is right about what the American people want, but I completely agree that it is important not to seem to be making "cute legal arguments."

But here is the essence of the problem: How did it come to pass that the "accepted" point of view -- that the debt limit supersedes the budget, forcing spending cuts below what Congress ordered the President to carry out -- was not viewed as a cute legal argument, whereas our argument would be called too clever by half (or something like that)?  The Republicans and the Democrats alike have simply accepted an idea that is truly radical: A duly-enacted budget can be nullified (but only on the spending side, not the taxing side) if the party dominating one house of Congress refuses to change a one-sentence-long law that has never had any legal significance in the history of the country.

If we actually reach the point where the debt ceiling becomes binding, and actual spending cuts are carried out, then we will see real people saying: "Wait a minute.  I was guaranteed to receive $X by a valid legal enactment, and now I'm receiving $X minus $Y, because of a law that has never mattered before?  WTF?!"  The framing might well change at that point.

In the meantime, however, I suspect that the framing started out in its current bad form because "spending cuts" are part of the standard political debate in Washington.  Democrats have agreed with Republicans that spending cuts are necessary and virtuous, and when budgets are debated, the arguments almost always include ways to cut spending.  The people who matter never bothered to notice that those spending cuts are prospective, that is, that the debate is typically about whether to change spending levels in future budgets.  In the current debate, however, we are talking about reneging on legally binding obligations in the current budget, not in some future budget that has not been legally enacted.

Somehow, that difference never penetrated the Beltway consciousness, and we now find ourselves in a situation where the most modest approach to dealing with the debt ceiling (issuing debt as necessary to execute the budget) is deemed to be too radical, while having the President arrogate to himself awesome powers to change Congress's spending priorities is a yawn-inducing non-event.  I wish I knew how the "cute legal argument" that leads to a truly radical expansion of Presidential powers could be seen as unobjectionable, whereas the legal argument that would limit the constitutional damage can be viewed as the kind of thing that only nutty academics would dare advocate.  But I don't.