December 12, 2013
Gridlock takes firmer root in Washington
WASHINGTON — Washington once again stands at a moment of crisis — only this time, Democrats and Republicans are not negotiating a way to avoid it. They are not even speaking to one another.
The cumulative effect of almost three years of governing by near-death experience is becoming clear. Instead of bringing a resolution, each close call has left the parties further apart. These wrenching stand-offs have only made them more entrenched. Their focus now rests almost exclusively on what cannot be reconciled and on scores to be settled, rather than on areas where they might actually find common ground.
It is as though Washington has taken evolution backward — and is operating as a primitive, leaderless village where petulance passes for governance.
There has been but one set of high-stakes negotiations going on. That is between House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and the fractious members of his GOP conference.
House Republicans are making a demand that many of their members acknowledge is unrealistic: that President Barack Obama, after being easily re-elected 11 months ago, surrender his biggest domestic achievement.
“We will not repeal or defund Obamacare. We will not. And to think we can is not rational,” Senator John McCain has said.
That Obama is refusing to budge — or even to engage — reflects more than the importance he attaches to the healthcare law. The White House is looking at this battle through the lens of its past experiences negotiating with Republicans. Most searing was the failure of the 2011 debt-ceiling talks, which brought Obama tantalizingly close to what he thought would be a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction.
“In 2011, there was an understanding on both sides that we were trying to negotiate a larger deal that would reduce the deficit,” White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri said.
The Republicans’ stance — that they will agree to a bill that would keep the government operating for two months in exchange for a one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act — amounts to “political extortion,” she said.
And even some Republicans are perplexed by how their party, in its drive to undermine the healthcare law, has taken its focus off the fiscal issues that have been so central for the GOP.
Although the flow of red ink has slowed as a result of an improving economy and spending cuts, the long-term outlook remains dire, unless something is done about the increase in spending on entitlement programmes such as Social Security and Medicare.
None of those are under consideration anymore.
“There’s no real deficit reduction here,” said G. William Hoagland, a Republican and former chief of staff of the Senate Budget Committee. “That’s the difference between 2011 and 2013.”
In 2011, a government default was averted, but the near-miss nearly derailed the recovery. Consumer confidence plunged to its lowest point since the depths of the financial crisis. Hiring stalled. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index dropped more than 10 percent.
“It did grave, absurdly unnecessary damage to the economy, and that is a process we would never undertake again,” Palmieri said.
Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat, was a congressional staffer the last time the government shut down, in 1995.
To him, those are starting to look like good times.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m nostalgic for Newt Gingrich,” he said of the flame-throwing former House speaker, “but the bottom line was by comparison he seemed more reasonable.”