Tuesday, October 15, 2013

EDITORIAL >> U.S. heads for default

As the doomsday clock clicks toward midnight, anarchy and national default, the mind on a Tuesday evening in October 2013 is quizzical. How will history score this frantic week—as the moment when the national legislature plunged the nation and the world into cataclysm or merely the zany week when the country saved itself at the last second from the consequences of one of the craziest political disputes in U.S. history?

Surely the latter. Let us hope and pray so. But it all depends on a relatively small clique, in all about a fifth of the elected members of Congress—for lack of a more apt description, the so-called Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. They forbade their party leader, Speaker John Boehner, to allow a vote in the House of Representatives on supposed “clean” legislation to fund the government or to extend the nation’s debt limit after having raised the ceiling regularly for a century in good times and bad and under Republican and Democratic presidents.

It came down to this: Nothing was to be done to fund government until they could score a significant victory against the president they had hated since his election and against his and Congress’ greatest achievement of recent times, extending health insurance to the last Americans who are denied it or can’t afford it.

All year, their condition for keeping the government operating and protecting the nation’s credit and the world monetary system was that Congress and the president agree to scrap or at least postpone the final stage of “Obamacare,” which was the private marketplace where people can shop for an insurance policy they can afford. The parts of the law that went into effect in 2010 and afterward had become so popular (no one admitted they were part of Obamacare) that congressmen dropped the old demand that Obamacare be repealed in its entirety even while spreading more fantastic lies about what the law would do.

Tuesday night, the part of the House caucus shrank the demands so that the tea partiers could claim some kind of victory over the president, even a Pyrrhic one: Just scrap the insurance law’s little tax on the sales profits of big medical equipment manufacturers, which is supposed to pay for new Medicare benefits and lengthen the solvency of Medicare; change one of the few parts of Obamacare that Republicans wrote, the one switching members of Congress and congressional and White House staffs from the current employer-subsidized health plans to the new Obamacare markets so that they would not get the employer subsidy; and postpone or repeal the little tax on self-insuring businesses and unions that enter the Obamacare exchanges.

In other words, just anything to show we hurt Obamacare. But they insisted that the crisis still not be ended—just that the guillotine’s blade be lifted for a few weeks. The government would be funded and the debt limit raised just briefly. The country cannot be allowed a period of stability and sanity. But Tuesday night, the poor speaker, unable to get Republicans lined up behind even that weak offering, called off a vote and the clock ticked.

Trivial and silly—that’s all you can say about the conditions when the country’s very vitality and its global standing teeter on the precipice. But then the whole crisis has been nothing short of goofy. World financial and political leaders pleaded this week with the United States to come to its senses before wrecking the global financial system and sending much of the world into a depression. China warned that the hostage-taking American Congress proved that it was time that the world abandoned the dollar-based currency system. The United States was not a reliable manager of the global financial order, the communist government said.

Polls showed that despite House Republican chants that the shutdown and monetary crisis were Obama’s fault and the Democrats’, a vast majority of Americans’—nearly everywhere but in the South—laid the blame on congressional Republicans. In the South, we all know that Barack Obama is to blame for every foul wind. Sen. John McCain, Obama’s bitter antagonist, called on his colleagues to come to their senses and forget about Obamacare. Like Social Security, Medicare, the GI bill, veterans’ relief and all the rest, it’s the law. Don’t wreck the country to get back at him, McCain said.

Lots of Republicans, perhaps most of them in the Senate and House, agree with him but quietly. Voting on anything plausible that would open the government and avert the nation’s first default will get them tea-party opponents in the spring. Even Tuesday night, tea-party congressmen were warning their colleagues that if they caved they would face opponents in the Republican primaries who would have big-time funding.

Here in remote Arkansas, where the government shutdown daily closes more and more human services, wherever they are funded partly by federal dollars, our representatives in Washington lead the tea-party revolt or else hide. Sen. John Boozman is the exception. Stop it, he said. It was stunning, coming from the silent man. Rep. Tom Cotton of the Fourth District says the government shutdown and default are pretty good things, or at least not so bad. He caucuses with the hotspurs.

Our own Tim Griffin has it both ways. He says he’s against the government shutdown and default, but in the hushed caucuses makes sure that he’s not presented with the option of voting for a clean funding bill that would end the crisis.

Let us pray that in our graying years we can remember this insanity with equanimity and a touch of humor. —Ernie Dumas