The national debt and deficit impasse can best be described by the American master of malapropisms and Hall of Fame Yankees catcher Yogi Berra: “It’s déjà vu all over again.’
The clash and dance by Republicans and Democrats is familiar, most recently acted out in April, when the parties and President Barack Obama couldn’t reach an agreement on a budget.
The talks literally went down to the last minute, with the threat of a government shutdown. Then U.S. House and U.S. Senate leaders gave members their marching orders, and all voted accordingly.
Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the current debate have, as expected, staked out what they say are firm positions on raising the record $14.3 trillion national debt ceiling and the record $1.4 trillion federal budget deficit.
House Republicans refuse to vote on any legislation that contains what they view as tax increases. Democrats are holding their breath if the deal doesn’t contain increased tax revenue.
At the beginning of last week, House Republicans sent word that they would stand on their position that any deal not contain new tax revenue. The position is particularly being pushed by Republican House freshmen, who rode the tea party wave into the U.S. Congress last November.
Earlier in the week, the sides were talking about a pact that would include $1 trillion in increased tax revenues as part of a Senate plan. Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry of New Iberia, part of the band of renegade House freshmen, summed up his position on any deal containing new revenues with one word:
“No,” said the usually loquacious Landry.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, the dean of the Louisiana House delegation, said he couldn’t see any of the Senate measures containing increased tax revenue being talked about earlier in the week getting through the House.
“I don’t know anything that has been presented over there that we can vote on here that can get enough numbers to pass,” Alexander said.
By the end of the week, it was Democrats angered by a proposed deal. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, were said to have been considering an agreement that would cut the federal deficit by $3 trillion over the next 10 years.
But U.S. Senate Democrats were outraged that the pact doesn’t contain new tax revenues. The deal is expected to handle any new taxes through negotiations over revamping the tax code next year.
How will it all end?
If the past is any indication, the deal will be struck this week. U.S. House and Senate leadership will sell the deal to members, who will vote in lock step.
“If you were Rip Van Winkle and you went to sleep for a while, you would wake up and say this has always been,” said Stephen Hess of the centrist Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C.
Hess recalled 1984 when then-President Ronald Reagan wanted to raise the debt ceiling and it was Democrats such as then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, of Delaware, squawking.
“Joe Biden thought that was a terrible thing to do,” Hess said.
Hess acknowledged that this battle is different because the stakes are higher. Obama and U.S Treasury leaders contend that the nation’s economy will begin to collapse if a deal isn’t reached by Aug. 2.
If the problem isn’t resolved and the nation’s economy goes into a spin, it will be the new, staunchly conservative House members who get the blame, Hess said.
“They do have the most to lose, and I think they’re going to lose something, that’s the name of the game,” Hess said. “These folks came here thinking they could do more than they can, than the system allows.”
Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said he sees a similar pattern played out in his classroom every semester.
“Members of Congress aren’t a lot different than my students,” Sabato said. “Both procrastinate and work hardest right before an immovable deadline.”
“At the eleventh hour, with disaster and a stock market crash looming, the leadership will somehow piece together the 217 (House) votes for passage,” Sabato said.
Gerard Shields is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is GerardShields@aol.com.