Tuesday, April 5, 2011

To the Abyss ...

The roots of the upcoming government shutdown have been apparent for some time now. Our political culture has degraded severely, even since the 95-96 Clinton-Gingrich stalemate. Compromise is not just a lost art, it is now considered a sign of weakness. Ideology has overpowered pragmatism. We have lost any ability to promote shared sacrifice for the common good. The electorate continues to believe that we can lower deficits without raising taxes or reducing popular government programs and services. And so, to the abyss we go.

The depth of our political dysfunction is demonstrated by how quickly we got to this point. Continuing government operations was the first issue out of the gate for the new Congress. It loaded the entirety of its budget cutting and partisan agenda items on to one bill then insisted on imposing its will on both the evenly divided Senate and the President. We have never been close to a deal of any kind. The House bill and an early Democratic proposal did not even get majority support in the Senate - let alone 60 votes necessary to meet the filibuster threshold. Houston, we have systemic meltdown.

Like a bitter labor dispute, sometimes it takes a work stoppage to get the parties to begin moving off their dug in positions. So maybe it is good to get to the government shutdown as quickly as we have.

The political stakes in this showdown are very high, but substantively, the issues pale in comparison to those waiting in the wings. First, we are rapidly approaching the debt limit. A shutdown might put the day of reckoning off a bit, but not indefinitely. A debtor nation will need to borrow to service its debt, run its military, and pay for the health care of its senior citizens. Is there a conceivable path in the current environment to 218 votes in the House and a Senate supermajority to incur more debt?

And then there is the gargantuan bankruptcy inducing burden of long term health care costs. The battle lines have begun to be drawn over Medicare and Medicaid with the release of Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul and dramatically reduce the growth of these programs. The politics of health care are about as explosive as they come. Obama took a shot at beginning to address the intermeshed problems of coverage, quality, and costs and was rewarded with a 63-seat shellacking in the midterm elections. No wonder he is letting others take the lead. Ryan & Co. are betting that the power of deficit reduction politics can overcome these forces. We'll see...

The challenges we face are getting more and more difficult ... but our system is becoming less and less capable of dealing with them. It is wishful thinking to believe that this shutdown will be the starting point for healing the defects in our politics that have brought us to this moment. But that is the only cause for optimism that I can think of given where we stand right now.

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