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Political Animal

The Shape of Things to Come

See what we’re in for now?

The wake-up call from Standard and Poor’s (there’s irony for you: “It’s now a standard that you’re going to be poor”) downgrading of U.S. debt from AAA to AA+ is a symptom of a larger problem. The problem isn’t necessarily the debt itself. It’s the actions that led to the downgrade.

Despite being warned time and again by the business community, the tea party-led Republicans in the House proceeded with the unnecessary blackmail plot to try and eke concessions from President Obama and the Democrats. The end goal was to push through their policies regardless of the actual democratic process.

This is normal now. You may not see it because this little game of political Calvinball has been operating so insidiously that it’s like the apocryphal (and untrue) tale of the frog in the boiling water slowly turning into something that tastes like chicken. Blackmail politics will now be considered an ordinary thing in Washington, and nobody seems to be concerned about it. It’s not enough to win by votes in Congress anymore, the way things used to be done under that quaint document the founding fathers called the Constitution. Now government is run depending on how much you can ransom what the other party wants.

Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum pointed out that it never was considered “normal” to hold up judicial and executive branch appointments “just because they can be.” Back when Bill Clinton was president, the GOP started holding up his judicial appointments, because, as the late Sen. Jesse Helms now famously said at the time, “We already have enough judges.” How did this come about? During the time, the Republicans used the Senate’s “blue slip rule” (which required both home-state senators to approve a judicial nominee) to effectively block Clinton’s nominations. This, most notably, was used to keep the Fourth Circuit (which includes Helms’ North Carolina) bench all white.

As soon as George W. Bush became president, Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch was afraid of the tactic being used by Democrats, so he changed the rules and then said only one positive vote from the state’s Senate delegation was necessary. “You can’t have one senator holding up, for instance, circuit nominees,” Hatch said in 2003 despite what had happened in 1997.

Republicans have now told the president that not only will he not get his nominees appointed, but he must change the makeup of the organizations to which he wants to name them—despite the fact that it was written into the law as passed. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was formed as part of the Dodd-Frank Act that came about after the crash of 2008, and was signed into law last July by the president—except that the Republicans, who couldn’t stop the law from passage, refuse to let the bureau operate until it is defanged by changing the way the agency runs. In other words, they’re playing a hostage game because they don’t like the consequences of losing. Sound familiar?

During the hostage standoff over raising the nation’s debt limit, at one point House Speaker John Boehner’s offer was for $1.8 trillion in budget cuts (no taxes, of course) and another vote on the debt ceiling six months later, during an election year. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic rightly mocked this offer as being like “a kidnapper who offers to give you back your child for $100,000 and your other child.”

The problem is, for government to work, to run, it needs agencies with leaders and it needs funding. If you’re of the party that glibly thinks we have “too much government,” you don’t really care if it works or runs, as we just saw with the standoff over the Federal Aviation Administration (that was a hostage standoff over the right for unions to organize, by the way). But over time, you might like your meat to be inspected, your planes to fly safely, your drugs to be safe, and your banks to remain solvent, among other things.

But each of these is now subject to a hostage demand by any party that thinks it can get policy concessions that it can’t win at the ballot box or via majority vote. During the debt standoff, one of the demands made by Republican tea partiers was that a balanced budget amendment be passed by both houses of Congress. Not just debated or voted on—passed. Otherwise, nice little credit rating you’ve got there, America. Shame if something should happen to it.

Just think what we have to look forward to: Appropriations bills have to be passed. The budget for another year needs to be approved. Imagine, just imagine, if a Supreme Court justice decides to retire, oh happy day. If it were one of the Court’s conservative majority, or, heaven forfend, swing justice Anthony Kennedy, just think of the hostage-taking potential.

This is the new normal. Elections may have consequences—but now they’re only the beginning.

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