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February 1, 2015

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A quagmire of destructive dysfunction

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President Barack Obama is set to begin his second term at a moment when the question is not what great things our nation can achieve but whether our government, in Obama’s words, can “stop lurching from crisis to crisis to crisis.”

The jury is out, but continued dysfunction seems the most likely scenario. Obama’s news conference on Monday — his last scheduled encounter with White House reporters before Inauguration Day — was a tutorial in low expectations.

Obama devoted his opening remarks to the latest unnecessary crisis: the threat by Republicans in Congress to refuse to raise the federal debt ceiling. Such action, or inaction, would be “a self-inflicted wound on the economy,” Obama said.

That’s an understatement. Failing to raise the debt ceiling would in fact be a catastrophe, putting the faith and credit of the U.S. government in doubt and destabilizing a global financial system in which the dollar is the benchmark currency.

Congress has a long history of playing politics with the debt ceiling — even Obama once voted against an increase when he was a senator — but there was always the understanding that in the end, the needed increase would be approved. It was unthinkable that the country actually would default on its obligations.

But nothing is unthinkable anymore. House Republicans are threatening to force a default unless the president agrees to further spending cuts. Obama vowed Monday that Republicans “will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy.”

Obama flatly ruled out two scenarios that have been proposed as ways for him to raise the debt limit without approval by Congress — invoking an obscure clause in the 14th Amendment, or, more fancifully, minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin. “There are no magic tricks here,” he said. “There are no loopholes. There are no easy outs.”

But he did appear to leave one door slightly ajar. Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with future spending; it merely provides the funds for expenditures Congress has already approved. Obama noted that if Congress fails to act, it will have given him two conflicting orders: Spend a specific amount of money on specific programs but do not obtain the funds to make this spending possible. Some scholars have suggested Obama just declare that the instruction to spend outweighs the instruction not to borrow, and then let the Supreme Court eventually sort things out.

Is your head about to explode? Mine is. We’re not talking about how our leaders can best deal with some external threat. We’re not talking about how they can move the nation toward some goal. We’re talking about how they might, just might, be able to avoid choking the economic life out of the country.

This has been the pattern since Republicans won control of the House. Our elected representatives manufacture a crisis, then craft a “solution” that is nothing but a recipe for the next crisis.

Republican leaders have begun talking about a series of short-term increases in the debt limit, each increase approved only as agreement is reached on further spending cuts. Said an exasperated Obama: “I’m not going to have a monthly, or every-three-months, conversation about whether or not we pay our bills.”

He’s right, of course. It would be madness for Congress to continue to pick fights over spending that Congress itself has approved. Obama can veto any short-term debt limit increase Congress sends him, but then he would have to find some way to raise the ceiling unilaterally. If he’s prepared to go that far, case closed. If not, I see no evidence that appealing to the House Republicans’ sense of reason will produce anything but hoarseness and frustration.

The most positive development in recent weeks is that the financial markets seem to have become increasingly blase about the government’s dysfunction. The consensus seems to be that we’ll find some way to muddle through without committing an act of national self-asphyxiation.

But it’s pretty pathetic when the most hopeful thing you can say about our government is that probably, in the end, our leaders won’t do excessive damage to the country’s well-being.

There’s lots of important work to be done — minimizing gun violence, charting energy policy, implementing health care reform, tackling the immigration issue, trimming Pentagon spending. Instead, congressional Republicans are focused on brinksmanship that is at best pointless, at worst destructive.

“That’s not a credible way to run this government,” Obama said. As if we hadn’t noticed.

Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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  1. Robinson & Mr. Sun,

    "Failing to raise the debt ceiling would in fact be a catastrophe, putting the faith and credit of the U.S. government in doubt and destabilizing a global financial system in which the dollar is the benchmark currency" is a bold-faced lie. Perhaps even more troubling, is that you know it is a bold-faced lie.


  2. Mr. Robinson: You like President Obama have no comprehension of the federal budget. You know words here and there to make a point, usually political and usually wrong.

    There's is no risk of US default on current/past debts of the country by not raising the debt ceiling. Money is constantly coming into the US coffers to meet these obligations and expeditures. The debt ceiling is moot with respect to future spending and obligations. Unless and until the president and Congress pass an approved 2013 budget, the US is limited to 2012 spending AND THEN only up to March 27 when the Continuing Resolution expires.

    You and the President are just plain wrong. It's understandable for you. You're just a mediocre jounalist with a lot still to learn. But President Obama got elected without the slightest notion of the US federal government budgeting process. Still doesn't know and understand the budget. The reason his 2013 budget could not be scored by the CBO and 99 Senators voted against it and zero voted for it.