With Manchin in the Lead on the Debt Ceiling, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
by Neil H. Buchanan
Now that the first wave of uninformed press coverage about the debt ceiling has run its course, superseded by things like the Turkey/Syria earthquake and Republicans heckling the State of the Union speech, the real work will begin. That is, even though we reached the nominal debt limit a few weeks ago, we have some unknown number of months (most likely until June or July) before the drop-dead date on which Republicans might shoot the hostage and push the US into a constitutional crisis. Four or five months is not a long time, and it will involve ebbs and flows of news as real discussions take place that will determine our collective fate.
Professor Dorf pointed out a few days ago that the Biden Administration seems to be trying to "win the politics" of the debt ceiling by priming the public to blame Republicans if everything goes to hell. I completely agree with his forceful retort:
If Biden thinks that he has painted McCarthy into a corner where McCarthy will have to concede lest the unpopularity of the GOP position be exposed, he hasn't been paying attention.
For God's sake, AFTER A MOB INSPIRED BY A DEFEATED REPUBLICAN PRESIDENT TRIED TO VIOLENTLY OVERTHROW THE U.S. GOVERNMENT, A MAJORITY OF HOUSE REPUBLICANS VOTED TO END DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. What price did they pay? They won back the House by a smaller margin than expected, but meanwhile, the few patriotic House Republicans willing to stand up to the madness lost their seats. And Joe Biden thinks Republicans will be embarrassed by the fact that they haven't specified what budget items they want to cut? Or that they won't simply lie about it?
As Professor Dorf went on to point out, Biden might be trying to negotiate with hostage-takers while denying that he is doing so. In any case, it is surprisingly not Biden's inherently cautious centrism that underpins his thinking on this. As I noted here recently, even the genuine left-liberal thinker Bob Kuttner has enthusiastically embraced the idea that Biden should affirmatively harm vulnerable people (like Social Security recipients), because that would allow Biden to point the finger at Republicans.
That means that even some of the people who should be aggressively telling Biden that he needs to pay all the government's bills when the time comes, even if that means issuing debt that Congress has not authorized, are instead mired in wishful thinking about harnessing harm to real people to their side's political advantage.
But an even larger part of the problem is that Biden's supposedly cautious strategy (which is in fact quite risky) requires following the conventional rules of politics. If he is going to win the politics, he is going to have to play politics. And who else is on this playing field? None other than the barely-Democratic senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin. When I first saw reports indicating that he will play a major role in negotiations (although, again, Biden claims that he is not willing to negotiate), my heart sank. On the other hand, Manchin would have been a stumbling block no matter what, so I guess it does not matter that he is in the mix now.
Or does it? Two days ago, The Washington Post ran an op-ed under Manchin's byline. The piece was not so much terrible as comically confused, showing a lack of understanding that will make his presence in these we-swear-they're-not-negotiations talks especially problematic. Although he stumbled his way toward something that almost sounded like a reasonable position for a fiscal hawk (and while I am definitely not a fan of budgetary orthodoxy, at this point any argument from conservatives that is not utterly daft is a welcome change of pace), his presence will almost certainly make matters worse.
We can start with the headline: "Joe Manchin: Stop the political blame game and start cutting the debt." Taken literally, those words would mean that Manchin wants to start running annual surpluses, which is the only way to reduce debt. Is that what he meant? Headlines are generally not written by columnists, so maybe that is not in fact what he meant. Let us withhold judgment.
Things get off to a bad start, however, when Manchin asserts in his second sentence that "one would presume that leaders of both parties would
seek out compromise to avert an unnecessary, entirely avoidable
financial crisis and act soon to raise the debt ceiling." So, we are going to compromise between one side (the White House and the rest of the Democratic Party) saying that we should pay the nation's obligations in full and on time, while the other side says that we can stiff some people while giving higher priority to others? Compromise!
As is true of far too many politicians and pundits, Manchin simply cannot stick with one topic, conflating complaints about the debt ceiling with discussion of the debt, which (for the zillionth time) is not at all the same thing. Manchin:
Instead, we are again witnessing a dangerous game of unnecessary brinkmanship that puts our global credit rating at risk and could cost American families and businesses much more if our leaders fail.
So this is about the debt ceiling? Unfortunately, no. Manchin:
How serious a crisis could we face if we continue to ignore our nation’s debt? Consider the words of the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who was asked in February 2011 about the greatest threat facing our nation when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Without skipping a beat, Mullen said it was our national debt. Those words are truer now than they were then.
So this is about total levels of debt? Apparently yes. Manchin:
Although this is confused, at least it is not drivel. Indeed, it requires only a mildly charitable reading of Manchin's words to think that he might be saying two separate things: (1) the debt ceiling must be increased to prevent a disaster; and (2) anti-government hawks like Manchin should propose ways to make it unnecessary for the debt ceiling to be increased in the future, by cutting future spending. The problem is that he connects (1) and (2), when they have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
The best reading of the op-ed is that it mentions the debt ceiling merely as a pretext for Manchin and his fellow fiscal slash-and-burn types to stop the government from doing things that they hate (but the public likes). He seems to say that it is bad that this other spending "threatens" Social Security, Medicare, and the Pentagon, although he does not in fact say that he is against cutting the first two of those three items. (As a card-carrying fiscal conservative hypocrite from a red state, he of course would never touch the military.)
I am against cutting Social Security or Medicare, but did Manchin say the same? Or did he merely say that other spending is out of control and then head-feint toward the idea that those popular programs ought to be protected, leaving open the possibility that they might have to be cut unless he gets his way on everything else?
Upon issuing a predictable call for "a bipartisan budget agreement that puts our country on a better path," Manchin does make one undeniably accurate point, which is that it is simply wasteful to fail to pass annual budgets on time, as Congress has been doing in recent years. He writes that "by passing the annual appropriations bills on time, we would save billions we currently waste year after year by relying on continuing resolutions to fund government operations." He offers not even a guess, however, as to how many billions are wasted in this way. Is this another "waste, fraud, and abuse" dodge, arguing that we could reach fiscal nirvana by knocking fractions of a percent off of a few items? At the very least, I can report that I have seen no estimates (even from the usual suspects) saying that this particular form of waste adds up to anything meaningful.
Where would the real cuts come from -- the ones that would stop the supposed madness? Manchin:
Capping the annual growth of discretionary spending at 1 percent for the next 10 years would save more than $1 trillion. We can do this without threatening essential programs such as Medicare and Social Security or cutting defense spending at a time when we are grappling with the largest-scale land war in Europe since World War II and an emboldened China that blatantly violates our airspace and dominates global supply chains.