The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Cliff Diving

The practice of government by self-extortion

By Michael King, December 7, 2012, News

In another three weeks, we may all be ready to jump off a cliff.

That's at least how long this "fiscal cliff" mania will continue, since the current political structure of Congress appears to require a manufactured deadline to accomplish anything. Having created this artificial deadline to avoid actual policy decisions, Congress (and the Beltway media that bullhorns it) is now whipping up a frenzy reminiscent of the new sheriff's threat in Blazing Saddles: "Don't anybody move, or I'll blow my own head off." (I know, it was more graphic than that, but this is a family paragraph.)

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison (chair of the House Progressive Caucus) has been trying in vain to kill the "cliff" metaphor, proposing gamely, "let's call it a series of deadlines." ("Deadline" still sparks terror in some circles; reporters are easily frightened.) But with a 24-hour cable news cycle fighting for eyeballs, apocalyptic metaphors are the daily fodder.

Last week, in an attempt to sort out the fire from the fog, I asked Austin/San Antonio Rep. Lloyd Doggett for his perspective on the ongoing frenzy and where he thinks it's headed. "I'm still inclined to believe that ultimately there will be a solution," he told me, "but I can't tell if it will be an acceptable one or not." He compared the official and media response to a sensational weather report – "there's always a storm building somewhere" – but sees little chance of undoing the hyperbole. "Maybe that's the only way to force action in Washing­ton," he continued, "but there remains a danger that letting this frame be established will produce really bad policies or a weak agreement."

Doggett recalled the December 2010 agreement with congressional Republicans in which the White House surrendered on extending the Bush high-income tax cuts (and weakening the estate tax) in return for some stimulus spending and an extension of long-term unemployment benefits – a deal Doggett and other progressive Demo­crats opposed. In light of the recent election and Obama's campaign positions, Doggett said, "I hope that there will be continued insistence upon not extending Bush tax breaks for those at the top, and not seeing anything like an increase in the retirement age for getting access to Medicare, or anything that would undermine health care security."

Majority Rules

Thus far, Obama's held steady on letting the Bush tax cuts on the highest earners expire, although it's early, and the public posturing on both sides may not precisely reflect what's happening behind the scenes. Doggett said the current House voting schedule suggests little movement before Christmas, though he's encouraged by indications from some GOP reps that they're willing to buck their party to get a reasonable deal done.

On the other hand, he noted, Speaker John Boehner has continued to insist that he won't carry an agreement that is not supported by a majority of Republican members – a strategy that recalls the common practice of Tom DeLay. "But as long as there is that insistence that that's the only agreement that can be approved," Doggett said, "it's difficult to see how we can get an agreement that doesn't undermine [progressive] values." He said he remains hopeful that if Boehner doesn't insist on a lock-step GOP vote, enough Republicans could be persuaded to support an agreement that balances new tax revenues with defensible budget cuts.

Shocking Doctrine

But it's unlikely to happen quickly, so you may want to mute the TV. "I think we're going right up to Christmas week, and maybe beyond," Doggett said. "The two points that I was pressing on this week [are] don't block-grant Medicaid [to the states] and give Rick Perry any more authority over that than he has already; and on Medicare, don't agree to raise the eligibility age, because that would have a terrible effect on people who are just reaching 65 now."

He added that he hopes the proposed extension of the Social Security payroll tax cut would instead be revised to "do it in a way that everybody shares it. ... It penalizes many folks who are not in the Social Security system now, like teachers and firefighters and the like around the country; there are several million people who got nothing from the payroll tax cut."

Mentioning Perry in this context is a reminder that "fiscal cliffs" – or what writer Naomi Klein refers to as the "shock doctrine" – are often artificial crises created by public officials as a means of imposing policies (military, political, or economic) that would not otherwise be tolerated by the public. Perry's biennial budget policy – across-the-board departmental cuts mandated without reference to actual state needs – are prime examples of this approach, which the governor now wants to lock into the state constitution.

That's how the budget game is too often played, notes Doggett. "Instead of beginning from 'what does this country need in order [to] have long-term economic competitiveness, and more equity in terms of the distribution of income and the like in the economy?' ... we started from 'what can be cut?'" Of course, that's the suicidal result of a "fiscal cliff," or what economist Paul Krugman calls the "austerity bomb": "doing to ourselves gratuitously what has been happening to some of the European economies. ... So, we set ourselves up with the land mine in the road in front of our economy, which is not based on anything real. It's just based on our political mess."

In other words: Don't anybody move, or we'll blow our own heads off.

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