Every time I think I've seen everything, politically speaking, a new wave of nonsense comes crashing ashore and bowls me right over. Today's installment features a game of budgetary chicken being played among the Tea Partiers in the House, the Democrats in the Senate, and an alarmingly conciliatory Obama administration. If someone doesn't blink by midnight on Friday, the federal government will shut down and a great deal of fresh Hell will be unleashed.
Just a few short weeks ago, the concept of a government shutdown seemed remote. The GOP proposed a broad swath of brutal and highly dubious budget cuts crafted by a raft of right-bent House freshmen who are looking to placate the “Keep-Your-Damn-Government-Hands-Off-My-Medicare” wing of their party's base…which is grimly amusing, considering that a key element of their spending plan involves the slow and certain annihilation of Medicare itself.
House Speaker Boehner is looking more orange than usual while tip-toeing through a mine field of his own creation. On the one hand, he and a number of other House Republicans are terrified of the prospect of a shutdown, and for good reason. Newt Gingrich is perched over his door like Poe's raven, screeching dire warnings about his own vivid experiences with the matter. On the other hand, however, he's got Rep. Cantor and a mob of Tea Party freshmen frothing at the mouth over the prospect of wrecking the joint, and they have enough juice with the party to force the issue. If Boehner appears in the end to acquiesce to the proffered compromise, Mr. Cantor has positioned himself to challenge his leadership and snatch his gavel away.
And then, of course, there are the Democrats, led (if we're going to use that word) by President Obama. When the GOP coughed up their initial demand for some $60 billion in cuts, Mr. Obama charged out and immediately conceded the entire argument by agreeing to more than half that figure. Not enough, saith the freshman upon sensing the president's congenital desire to fold like wet newspaper, we want more. You said $30 billion in cuts, but now we want $40 billion. And here we are.
Mr. Boehner may be holding out until the last minute in order to look like he's playing hardball so as to please his fractious right flank, but that's a dangerous game. These things can develop their own inertia, and one suspects there are more than a few Democrats willing to let the deal go down so they can sit back and watch it boomerang on the GOP. Howard Dean said as much not long ago, but that gambit is just as perilous.
What is so mind-blowing here is the degree to which everyone involved is talking about all this like any of it even comes close to making sense. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the chief architect of the GOP's budget demands, has cobbled together something that is patently farcical on its face. To wit:
2.8% unemployment? $150 billon a year in new economic growth? Tax revenues that rise with tax cuts? All this can be yours – and more! – even while cutting trillions of dollars from the federal government and lowering taxes on the wealthy and corporations, according to a giddy estimate of the Republican budget by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Even as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) proudly touted his “fact-based budget” and decried Democrats' “budget gimmicks” yesterday, he prominently cited the think tank's absurdly rosy numbers, drawing widespread mockery from economists, budget experts, and health care wonks. Even the developer of the model that Heritage used to crunch the numbers can't figure out how Heritage reached its conclusions.
“The Heritage numbers are insane,” MIT economist Jonathan Gruber said in an interview with TPM. As Paul Krugman put it, Heritage's take “depends an awful lot on unicorn sightings – a belief in the impossible.”
The Heritage analysis bases its numbers on a “dynamic” model that it says takes into account the explosive growth unleashed by tax cuts. As a number of commentators have noted, it's the same approach that led them to conclude the Bush tax cuts would reduce the deficit and create millions of new jobs – instead they exploded the deficit and unemployment worsened, eventually skyrocketing.
But the model they use, which they attribute to analyst IHS Global Insight, appears to be out there even according to its creators. Nigel Gault, the chief economist for Global Insight told the National Journal's Tim Fernholz that he has no idea how Heritage came up with their conclusions.
The impact of a shutdown on the populace will be dynamic, especially if you're waiting for the IRS to send you a tax refund. Ain't happening. Social Security checks won't be delayed, at least not at first, but if a shutdown lingers for too long, those checks won't be coming, either. Some 800,000 people will be put out of work, and private sector jobs that rely on federal funding will likewise be left twisting in the wind.
US troops serving overseas will only get half their pay, if that. As the New York Times reported, “If the government shuts down from Friday for a week, troops would receive half their pay in the checks received on the 15th of the month. If the government were to stay shut down until April 30, (Defense Secretary Robert) Gates said, troops would miss a whole check. Troops are paid on the 15th and last day of each month.”
The list goes on, and the hits will keep on coming.
Center stage in this theater of the absurd is the brain-damaged frontal assault the GOP appears to be waging on senior citizens, who provided a great portion of the margin of victory Republicans enjoyed in the 2010 midterms. The proposed elimination of Medicare being batted around on Capitol Hill, combined with a potential disruption of Social Security benefits, is not going to sit well with that sector of the electorate, and those people are willing to walk through fire to get to a voting booth.
Of course, people like Michele Bachmann are out there talking about how they don't really want a shutdown – in one amusing scene, she said as much at a Tea Party rally surrounded by people chanting “Shut 'er down!” Don't believe the hype. The GOP has surrendered itself to the berserkers within their ranks, and they want this to happen.
The clock has not yet run out, and we may see some sort of deal struck before the lights go off. Even then, the result will be a disaster for the American people and the economy. The GOP and the Tea Party have already won the argument – again – and only their peculiar brand of idiocy could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Shutdown or not, the country is going to take it in the teeth.