It's not the budget process that's broken, it's our political system
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A new scandal erupted in DC last week, fueling an “impeachment process” in the House of Representatives that will likely preclude discussion, let alone action on pending policy issues for months. It’s the talk of the town, and indeed the nation, which may decisively alter the shape of the 2020 election campaigns and undermine our nation’s confidence in the future.
Meanwhile, the fiscal problem continues to fester, with trillion dollar deficits projected for at least the next several years. Even after signing off on a “bipartisan” budget deal in late July, the members of Congress didn’t get their appropriation bills done in September, so a continuing resolution (CR) was required to avert a government shutdown on Oct. 1. Ho, hum!
There may seem to be very little connection between these two situations, one the focus of everyone’s attention and the other basically ignored. But at a deeper level, there is a common thread: when bad behavior is tolerated – as it has been in both cases - worse behavior will follow.
A. Impeachment process – The president wasn’t expected to win the 2016 election, and his political opponents have been working to undermine him ever since. See, e.g., US electoral system is faltering, 12/10/18.
For a long time, the opposition envisioned that the Mueller probe would prove collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 elections – but this hope was apparently dashed when investigators failed to come up with solid evidence of misconduct after an extensive review. The resistance continues, to no good end, Section A, 4/22/19.
Last week, a “whistleblower” complaint surfaced that raised a new set of issues. Now it was the president who had reached out to his Ukrainian counterpart, supposedly in search of “political dirt” on the leading Democratic presidential candidate for 2020 (former Vice President Joe Biden) that could be used to Trump’s advantage in the upcoming presidential campaign.
There was solid evidence that a request on this subject had been made in the course of a July 25 telephone conversation between the two presidents, although President Trump and his supporters could and would argue that the request to President Zelensky had been OK as there was also solid evidence that – while serving as vice president - Mr. Biden had pressured the previous Ukrainian president into firing a prosecutor who was investigating possible misconduct in the Ukraine by Biden’s son (Hunter Biden).
At this point, a read-out (rough transcript) of the phone conversation has been made publicly available as well as a largely unredacted version of the August 12 whistleblower complaint. The identity of the “whistleblower” remains unknown; he is said to be an CIA agent, however, and it seems that his claims are based on second-hand information about the phone-call and associated matters from other unidentified persons.
Given this evidence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the commencement of an “impeachment process” – albeit without calling for a House vote on the matter – and indicated that the plan would be to focus on contacts by the president and others with the Ukrainians while holding up on investigations of other alleged presidential misconduct that had previously been announced by several House committee chairs. Eight keys to the coming Trump impeachment fight, Byron York, Washington Examiner, 9/27/19.
With such a limited focus, and starting work during the current two-week congressional recess, it was envisioned that an impeachment vote could be taken by the end of November – and would presumably pass - after which the focus would shift to the Senate (for the trial) and House Democrats could get back to their normal legislative business. Democrats insist their 2020 campaign message is not just impeachment, Alexander Burns & Nick Corasaniti, cnbc.com, 9/28/19.
On Friday evening, Ms. Pelosi declared at a conference of New Jersey Democrats in Atlantic City that she would not allow the 2020 election to become a campaign about impeachment. Insisting the inquiry “has nothing to do with the election,” she said the campaign would be fought on other terms.
“That’s about facts and the Constitution,” Ms. Pelosi said of the impeachment process. “The election is about all of the issues and policies that we have a difference of opinion with the Republicans on, and they are very drastic — and they have nothing to do with impeachment.”
Who has the stronger hand in this situation? Hard to say, it will depend on the subjective reactions of millions of Americans who are just starting to think about the matter. But we would venture a guess that further scrutiny of Joe Biden’s earlier actions in the Ukraine is inevitable, and that his presidential candidacy won’t survive.
As for the president, his decision to bring up Biden’s possible misconduct seems ill-advised. While he was arguably entitled to ask the Ukrainians to look into the possibility of corruption, his motives could and likely would be viewed as seeking political payback. It won’t be enough to argue that “I did nothing wrong,” he and his supporters must convincingly discredit the motives and tactics of the other side. Here are some arguments that might help in that regard:
•Three prominent Democratic senators previously pressured the Ukrainian authorities to continue an investigation directed against the president. If there is wrongdoing here, it should work both ways. Democrats’ double standard on Ukraine, Marc Thiessen, Washington Post, 9/25/19.
•The origins of the investigation of Russian collusion charges buttressed by the infamous Steele Dossier has never been satisfactorily explained, although the Department of Justice is finally investigating the matter. Before the dust settles, there may well be proof of serious misconduct on the part of the Obama administration – in comparison to which the current charge against Trump would fade into insignificance. Exonerated: the failed takedown of President Donald Trump by the swamp, Dan Bongino, 9/24/19.
•The failure to pursue this matter served to encourage the president’s enemies to believe they could continue to undermine him with impunity, and they have behaved accordingly. There have also been nonstop efforts to shame and/or vilify the president’s supporters as though they were betraying the nation by pushing back against criticism instead of joining in it. Reason and civility have suffered greatly in the process.
•The “whistleblower” complaint system was designed to protect sources with first-hand knowledge about matters of interest, not sources passing on hearsay information from other sources. Some folks in the intelligence establishment recently rewrote the complaint form, perhaps for the purpose of surmounting this procedural hurdle. Intel Community secretly gutted requirement of first-hand whistleblower knowledge, Sean Davis, federalist.com, 9/27/19.
•The complaint wasn’t prepared by the “whistleblower,” but by a team of lawyers. It’s unclear who paid the tab, but some of the lawyers may have connections with George Soros. Soros linked to whistleblower report, Josh Manning, westernjournal.com, 9/27/19.
Victoria Toensing: “The whistleblower sprinkles throughout his document footnotes referring to a publication with the initials “OCCRP.” One guess, Sean [Hannity], who funds OOCRP [Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project]? George Soros.”
•The complaint was dated August 12, 2019, with copies addressed to the chairs [only, not ranking members] of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. This would suggest that Rep. Adam Schiff had possession of this document for over a month before it was publicly released, thereby permitting him to decide at his leisure when and how it would be used.
Is this sort of ruthless personal attacks what we can look forward to in the future, and how long will it be until the focus moves from verbal assaults to physical violence. Note the similarity to the trend that helped to bring down the Roman Republic. Cicero Ancient Classics for English Readers, Collins, Rev. W. Lucas 1817-1887.
Rome had exerted control over a vast area by force of arms, but its political structure was corrupt at the core and the election of rulers with defined responsibilities to serve limited terms was dying out. A member of the old school, Cicero supported (but did not participate in) the assassination of Julius Caesar (after Caesar declared himself emperor). If the idea was to restore the Roman republic it didn’t work. Other emperors followed, many far worse than Caesar. Cicero made something of a pest of himself, and he was killed a few years later by followers of Mark Anthony.
The only way to get things back on course is to objectively investigate how the current impasse arose, determine who is primarily responsible, and ensure they are appropriately punished as a warning to others who might contemplate similar behavior in the future.
B. Fiscal problem – The president’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2020 wasn’t frugal enough to suit us, but it included a slew of targeted spending cuts and we viewed it as a “good start.” Congress felt otherwise, and the proposed cuts were essentially ignored.
Just before taking the month of August off, the members of Congress removed all of the remaining spending caps from the Budget Control Act of 2011, raised discretionary spending for FY 2020 & 2021 by over $300 billion, banned “poison pills” in the appropriation bills, and suspended the debt limit for a year to avoid an awkward vote to raise it by, say, $1 trillion. Latest budget deal: faster process, similar results, 7/29/19.
Despite striking this “bipartisan” deal, the members of Congress failed to get their appropriation bills done in September, as required by their own budget rules, so a continuing resolution (CR) was necessary to avert a government shutdown on Oct. 1. The new deadline is Nov. 21, which probably means that there will be a second CR before the appropriation bills are finally enacted in December – by which time some 20% of FY 2020 will have elapsed.
Most of the House appropriation bills had been passed before September, and most of the Senate appropriation bills had been passed by the applicable committees. It shouldn’t have been all that hard to finish up in September, including reconciliation of differences in the House & Senate bills. An attempt to bring some of the Senate appropriation bills to the floor failed, however, and that was the end of that. Appropriations Watch: FY 2020, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, 9/24/19.
Does it really matter if Congress takes a little more time for this task, particularly as they have passed CRs almost every year since the Congressional budget rules were adopted? Probably not, unless certain members stand to gain tactical advantages from the delay that could unfavorably affect the results. Let’s consider some of the possibilities.
#BORDER SECURITY - The most notorious disagreement on spending priorities is whether Congress should grant the president’s repeated requests for border wall funding. A 35-day government shutdown over this issue took place at the beginning of the year, with congressional Democrats refusing to increase the $1.4B to which they had agreed.
Democrats won the battle, but they lost the war when the president declared a national emergency that purportedly justified the diversion (re-designation) of funds that had been authorized for other purposes. Congress has twice voted to reverse the result by declaring there is no national emergency. The president vetoed the first bill and beat back an attempted veto override (requiring a 2/3 majority of both houses of Congress). The same result is anticipated for a second bill that was passed by both houses last week. Senate votes to block Trump border wall emergency money grab, Stephen Dinan, Washington Times, 9/25/19.
For Fiscal Year 2020, the president is requesting another $5 billion for the wall construction program, which would enable him to credibly claim that he has kept his 2016 campaign promise to upgrade and/or extend the border barriers that were in place along the southern border. Democrats don’t want to authorize any more wall funding, and they are also seeking provisions in the appropriation bills to preclude any more emergency re-designations of funds for this purpose. Senate passes short-term spending measure, Andrew Duehren, Wall Street Journal, 9/26/19.
“This is a waste of taxpayer dollars and bad for our country,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “It is not about solving real problems, it is about fulfilling a campaign promise.”
The Senate committee included $5 billion of wall funding in the appropriation bill, but Democrats have served notice that they will block a floor vote (i.e., filibuster the bill). Senate advances wall funding, 1600 daily.com, 9/26/19.
From where we sit, the passion that Democrats have invested in this fight seems disproportionate and the president’s demands (somewhat reduced from his initial proposals) seem reasonable. There are other government programs, less deserving of support, that get funded year after year without much discussion. If border wall funding is really what’s holding up completion of the appropriation bills for FY 2020, the president should win.
#CARBON TAXES - Proposals keep being offered for a carbon tax that would supposedly be painless because the tax would encourage reduced use of fossil fuel and the proceeds would be rebated to American households or invested in popular infrastructure programs. All gain – no pain. See, e.g., Republican Brian Fitzpatrick to introduce carbon tax bill that funds infrastructure, Josh Siegel, Washington Examiner, 9/25/19.
We fail to understand why the consumption of fossil fuels should be penalized versus other forms of consumption. The cost might not show up as a tax for individual Americans, but they would bear it through higher energy prices And even if a carbon tax was deemed desirable, the proceeds should be reserved for deficit reduction rather than earmarked for new spending programs. Oops, never mind!
#ENTITLEMENT PROGRAMS – Our political leaders have shown little interest in restructuring Social Security, but this program is a drain on the US treasury (forget the trust fund, which has already been spent) and matters will deteriorate as the ratio of active workers to beneficiaries keeps falling. The outlook for Medicare is similarly dire. Trustees say Social Security and Medicare face $59 trillion long-term deficit, Philip Klein, Washington Examiner, 4/22/19.
No need to discuss possible solutions here; the point is that realistic, in-depth discussions are needed – sooner rather than later. In due course, Americans will have cause to regret the delay. Nature abhors a vacuum, moreover, and ideas being thrown out would exacerbate the existing problems rather than solving them. Consider the Social Security 2100 Act.
The gist of this bill is to enhance retirement benefits for certain beneficiaries and pay for it by hiking payroll taxes that constitute the primary funding source for Social Security. Payroll taxes have already been pushed to about the maximum bearable level as part of the Social Security fix that was negotiated in 1983, so the idea is a nonstarter. And younger Americans, who are already struggling with student loan debt, etc., would be unfairly asked to bear most of the load. Democrats want to tax millennials to save Social Security, Mattie Duppler, Washington Examiner, 4/12/19.
#GOAL - There is no requirement to balance the budget in the current budget system, nor penalties that apply for running deficits. If the members of Congress can support spending programs that will gratify their constituents without getting blamed for unpopular tax increases, that’s what they will do.
Deficits and debt must be controlled at some point, of course, but the sense of restraint has eroded over time and the real test is “how much can we get away with.” OK, the deficit is now running about $1 trillion per year, which was a big shock the first time it happened but is beginning to seem rather “normal” by now. No doubt there will be a day of reckoning, but many legislators are probably banking on being out of office by then.
To achieve a different result, our national leaders must agree that the budget needs to be balanced and take action to make it happen. Otherwise, the government’s fiscal situation will continue to deteriorate until the roof caves in.
#The impeachment process is a sham and the Dems have no reason to push it to the Senate for a vote since anyone could be called to testify, under oath, during the process. Hillary, Brennan, Comey et al. would be forced to testify and perhaps contradict their previous testimony. Accordingly, the bluster and blow of the impeachment process will be stopped short of passing Articles of Impeachment. – SAFE director
We doubt such a maneuver would be well received by the US public. Having taken the plunge, Democrats will pursue the impeachment process as far as they can.
#Good job. Will sure be interesting (and scary) how this all plays out. Here are some questions that occur to me. – Retired financial manager
What do you think will happen with Social Security and Medicare? They will eventually be fixed in some fashion, but kicking the can down the road will inflate the costs.
Can anything be done to reduce the cost of education? Get the Feds out of the equation, i.e., abolish the US Department of Education.
Will any infrastructure improvements come about? Sure, if the Democrats are willing to negotiate (versus posture) and an understanding is reached about paying for them.
Is a wall really necessary given where drugs, etc. get infiltrated into our country? There’s no way to stop illegal immigration if would-be entrants can simply walk across the border. Other measures are needed too, however, such as rewriting our immigration laws, following up on visa overstays, and enforcing E-Verify.
Should the top 3% get 95% of the tax benefits? Says who? A more meaningful point would be that about half of Americans pay no income taxes at all or even get net tax rebates. Having no skin in the game, they don’t worry whether the government is spending money wisely.
More jobs were created during the Obama era than so far under today's president. Obama was in office for 8 years, while Trump has been president for less than 3, so the numbers aren’t comparable.
Can the president ever learn to be less divisive? Can he stop lying? Unbelievable how much he lies. Whatever Trump’s character flaws may be, they aren’t going to change. If anything, the constant criticism eggs him on to act worse.
Should he gain financially with his businesses the way he has? His businesses haven’t been prospering as a result of his being president.
Will he ever stop hating prisoners of war..... like McCain? Unlikely that he hates prisoners of war per se, although he and McCain clearly didn’t get along.
Will he finally share his tax returns and phone conversations with Putin? Not voluntarily, nor is there any legitimate reason for these demands.
#Good article! – family connection