A Senator and the Chief Justice Prove That It Is Better to Remain Silent

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt." -- anonymous

Very few people think that Chief Justice John Roberts is a fool.  Even fewer people have probably ever thought about Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado at all.  Earlier this week, however, both chose to opine about something about which they clearly know little or nothing, and both made fools of themselves.  Sadly, neither will ever know how ignorant they are, because their ignorance is a perfect distillation of current conventional wisdom on fiscal policy, budget deficits, and national debt.

First, the Chief Justice.  A short news article on New Year's Eve described an unfortunate attempt by Chief Justice Roberts to weigh in on the debate over extending the Bush/Obama tax cuts.  As the article put it, he wanted to give politicians "a little nudge."  That might be fine, if only he knew what he was talking about.  The Chief wrote: "Our country faces new challenges, including the much-publicized ‘fiscal cliff’ and the longer-term problem of a truly extravagant and burgeoning national debt. ...  No one seriously doubts that the country’s fiscal ledger has gone awry. The public properly looks to its elected officials to craft a solution."

"Truly extravagant and burgeoning"?  Well, maybe he just likes flowery language.  But it would help, as a matter of substance, if he were to recall that having the Congress do absolutely nothing on New Year's Eve to address the non-cliff would have made the debt less truly extravagant, and shriveling.  The deal that was ultimately passed has been scored as adding $3.9 trillion to the national debt over a decade, compared to doing nothing.  (And of course, many people seriously doubt that the country's fiscal ledger has gone awry, at least in the sense that the Chief Justice obviously means it.  Discussing that, however, would take us too far afield.)

But the Chief is only getting started: "The federal judiciary makes do with a budget appropriation of about $7 billion, [Roberts] wrote, 'a mere two-tenths of 1 percent of the United States’ total budget of $3.7 trillion.  Yes,' he went on, 'for each citizen’s tax dollar, only two-tenths of one penny goes toward funding the entire third branch of government!'"  What is he talking about?!  The cost of running the government cannot be attributed to any particular branch.  The military is funded by Congress and administered by executive agencies, so which branch should be "billed" for the Pentagon?  And is, for example, the budget for environmental remediation to be attributed to the judiciary, given how much litigation is involved in the process?  This is utter nonsense, packaged as small-bore puritanical prudence.

The Chief then went on to brag about how the judicial branch is cutting costs, saying that the Supreme Court "continues to set a good example," asking for less money in 2012 than in 2011.  He did note that the request went up in 2013, "largely in response to new judicial security needs.  ...   Because the judiciary has already pursued cost containment so aggressively, it will become increasingly difficult to economize further without reducing the quality of judicial services.  Virtually all of the judiciary’s core functions are constitutionally and statutorily required. Unlike executive branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or projects they can postpone."

The mind reels.  As the article pointed out, the Supreme Court issued 64 signed opinions last year, compared to 75 the year before.  So it is, in fact, possible for the Court to exercise discretion to reduce its workload.  Doing so is actually harmful, but if we are going to measure a part of the government by how well it shirks its duties, the Supreme Court is a champion.  More importantly, does the Chief Justice of the United States really not understand that everything else on which the federal government spends money is also "constitutionally and statutorily required"?  That is what a government is.

The nation's top jurist then "called on President Obama and Congress 'to be especially attentive to the needs of the judicial branch and provide the resources necessary to its operation.'"  Presumably, this would include those extra funds in 2013 for "new judicial security needs."  In other words, Roberts is arguing that the budget should reward government agencies that have learned to live on limited budgets, and that Congress should be especially aware of such agencies' "needs."  I am glad to know that he is in favor of increasing spending on anti-poverty programs, foreign aid, and every other agency that has learned to "tighten its belt" over the years, as Republicans (and many Democrats) in Congress continue to attack such under-funded programs for being "truly extravagant and burgeoning."

Obviously, the Chief Justice is simply out of his comfort zone, merely repeating the cant that he hears at Republican fundraisers and from reading the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.  At least, however, he could defend himself (if he even knew that he needed to do so) by pointing out that he is not a part of the political branches of government.  Economic policy is simply not his job.  In any event, he certainly makes it clear why we should be glad that there is a "political question doctrine," by which judges defer to elected officials on matters of policy.

Senator Bennet has no such excuse.  In "The Man Who Said 'Nay,'" Maureen Dowd devoted her January 1 column to what was obviously meant to be a very positive profile of Senator Bennet ("Frank Capra dreamed him up"), who was one of only three Democratic senators who (along with five Republicans) voted against the new tax bill.  She suggests that he did so "to stake out some centrist and independent territory for a future White House run," but immediately reports that he modestly "demurred."  In other words, he is running for President.  (Dowd calls him "the future of his party.")

It actually took quite a few paragraphs before Dowd got around to explaining why Bennet was a "no" vote.  Was it that Obama had sold out his own campaign promises, to strike a deal that did not have to happen?  Is Bennet, in other words, with Senator Tom Harkin, who also voted against the bill?  No, that would make him an extremist liberal, in the eyes of nominally liberal DC lifers like Dowd.  When Dowd finally stops heaping on the praise ("freckled blond choir boy"), we learn why Bennet objected to the bill: "He said he did so because the deal did not have meaningful deficit reduction."

Yes, Bennet agrees with Roberts that a bill whose entire goal was to reduce the austerity inherent in the expiration of reduced tax rates -- which was, in other words, a bill whose very purpose was to increase the deficit -- is objectionable because it did not have meaningful deficit reduction.  And why is it important to have meaningful deficit reduction?  "I think if we can get people focused to do what we need to do to keep our kids from being stuck with this debt that they didn’t accrue, you might be surprised at how far we can move this conversation. Washington politics no longer follows the example of our parents and our grandparents who saw as their first job creating more opportunity, not less, for the people who came after."

So, yes, Bennet also agrees with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, that the right way to think about deficits is to invoke a false generational conflict.  But it gets worse: "He thinks the trouble is not so much a clash of Democratic and Republican orthodoxies as it is a clash of past and future. 'I think the inhabitants of the past are fighting hard to keep the rents they acquired in the 20th century,' he said."  Note the wonk-speak, referring to the "rents" that special interests supposedly extract from the otherwise-efficient free market that makes us The Greatest Nation in the World.

Not content to sound like a spokesman from a Republican think-tank, Bennet adds one last self-disqualifying statement:  "I know this country is not going to allow itself to go bankrupt. It’s challenging, though, because in this town there are all kinds of people whose job it is to obfuscate the facts."  Of course, anyone whose job was not to obfuscate the facts would know that the country is nowhere near going bankrupt -- indeed, that it is not even possible for the US government to go bankrupt.

If we are to believe Maureen Dowd, Senator Bennet is apparently well-meaning.  Unfortunately, he does nothing more than repeat Republican dogma about deficits.  Again, Bennet is not only the occupant of an office in which he (unlike C.J. Roberts) is supposed to know that the heck he is talking about when he weighs in on fiscal policy, but he is presenting himself as a moral beacon and policy authority.  Everything he says, however, exposes him as nothing more than a guy who has mastered the talking points that he hears every day.  And he is the future of the Democratic Party.

Perhaps I have been too hard on President Obama.  With guys like these feeding the debate in Washington, it is no wonder that fiscal policy is such a mess.