Now is a critical time for America on the budget showdown, of course. But behind the real effects of the shutdown on the American public is the political arguing. While the entire news media waits for the first public opinion polls to come out on the shutdown (and the question they consider crucial: "Who should be blamed?"), Democrats have got to press the issue hard, and offer up some solid pushback on current Republican talking points. Below are the comments I would dearly love to hear from either House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, President Barack Obama, or some combination of the three. Ideally, it'd be issued as a letter, signed by all of them. Short of that, here are the points all Democrats interviewed in the media could be making right now, to great effect. Because if this thing is not resolved in the next day or so, it's going to erupt into a much bigger and more-drawn-out fight. And Democrats need to be ready for it.
In all fairness, I have to say that (so far) Democrats seem to be doing a pretty good job of communicating their position during the budget trainwreck. This is rather impressive, because Democrats aren't always this good at such basic political communication skills. Which is why I devote every Friday column I write to attempting to offer Democrats some ideas on how to frame their issues. In fact, this column is going to be very similar to these efforts -- call it a rare "Wednesday Talking Points" column, I suppose. In any case, here's my take on what positions Reid, Pelosi, and Obama should be staking out right now, in response to the Republican talking points currently floating around.
This is not about the budget
Previously, Republicans have staged these showdowns and shutdowns over the question of the budget and the deficit. Unfortunately for them, the deficit is falling at a faster rate than it has since World War II. The economy is improving, tax revenues are up, and spending has been cut. This takes the wind out of the Republicans' austerity sails. Make no mistake about it, this battle is not about the federal budget in any way, shape, or form. If there was some underlying "cut deficits" strategy to the Republican shutdown, then why would the House have passed a budget bill on the brink of the shutdown which increased the debt by $29 billion? Yes, you heard that right -- House Republicans, this Monday, wanted the Senate to increase the debt by billions to cut an Obamacare tax they didn't like. So -- please -- don't try to tell me this is about deficits or the budget, because Republicans' own actions prove that to be false.
This is about taking affordable health care away from millions
Make no mistake about it -- this entire fight is about taking affordable health insurance away from millions of Americans. You can't even accurately say that it was ever even about "stopping" Obamacare, because no matter what the Tea Partiers told their followers, the Republican bills could not actually stop the Obamacare funding which was already in place -- a mark of the silliness of the House Republicans' entire position. Obamacare exchanges opened for business Tuesday, and they were overwhelmed with people eager to sign up for health insurance they could afford -- without being told they weren't eligible because of a pre-existing condition. That's really all "Obamacare" ever was, folks. Far from being the "trainwreck" prophesied, the exchanges are now being upgraded (by adding more capacity) to being the equivalent of "bullet trains" -- capable of signing up millions of people on the same day. Think about that for a minute. And with every passing day, more and more Americans are signing up. So, from this point on, we're not talking about "delaying" or "defunding" anything. What we're talking about is taking affordable health insurance away from Americans who desperately want it. Denying it to them, in other words. Ask any cancer survivor who has now signed up on an exchange what the Republicans are fighting against -- they'll tell you.
The "Hastert Rule" is not actually in the Constitution
But let's turn to what is going on in Washington right now, as we attempt to bring an end this Republican shutdown. The first point worth making is to tell all those Tea Party folks to actually read the Constitution they all prominently carry around in their pockets. I'd like any of them to point out to me where in there it says that a bill can only advance in the House of Representatives if a "majority of the majority party" decides it is worthy. I'll save them some time -- it isn't there. The so-called "Hastert Rule," in fact, isn't even part of the official House of Representatives rules. What the Constitution actually says is that the House should pass legislation with a majority vote. That's a majority of all the House -- not just one party.
As the Republican shutdown goes on, the list of House Republicans who are willing to vote for a "clean" continuing resolution to end this Republican shutdown nightmare is growing. The last I checked, at least 18 House Republicans are on record stating that they'll vote for a clean bill. Together with the 200 Democrats, that makes a majority of the House. The only thing preventing Speaker John Boehner from ending the government shutdown -- right now -- is his own insistence on following a rule which doesn't even really exist. It's no longer even a partisan issue -- because the bipartisan support for a clean bill is growing by the hour. As the Republican shutdown drags on, more and more House Republicans will likely jump ship. It's just a question of when Boehner decides to act on what over a dozen House Republicans even now publicly state that they want. There is now a majority of the House ready and willing to end the Republican shutdown -- the only one standing in the way is John Boehner.
Republicans have blocked conference committees already
I notice that House Republicans thought they were being clever by proposing a conference committee between the House and the Senate to work out our differences. If we weren't in the midst of the pain of a Republican shutdown, this would actually be highly amusing. All year long, Democrats have begged Republicans to set up just such a committee on the budget. The Senate passed a budget, the House passed a budget, and the normal thing would have been to move to a conference committee. Except that the House Republicans hated and feared the idea. They hated the concept because they know Senate Republicans are more reasonable, and they feared that some sort of compromise that falls short of 100 percent of what they want would be achieved. So they blocked the idea. Repeatedly. Harry Reid tried to name members to such a conference committee 17 or 18 times -- and each time, the Republicans blocked it or filibustered it. Ted Cruz voted against the idea. In the House, they tried to tie the hands of any such committee by dictating what they could and couldn't even discuss in the committee -- which is just flat-out ridiculous. So I find it highly amusing that -- all of a sudden -- Republicans are trying to say that Democrats won't work with them on a conference committee. Because Democrats have been trying to do this all year long. Republicans have been blocking the committee's formation all year long. They had their chance at what's called "regular order." They refused to do so -- over and over again. So don't try any revisionist history now, because it hasn't been Democrats who have been against this idea, it has been Tea Party Republicans who have blocked it.
Democrats already conceded on the sequester
In normal times, Republicans would have declared victory and gone home by now. After all, Democrats made an enormous concession in the clean budget bill already -- because they agreed to continue the hated sequester. The Democratic negotiating position started by restoring the sequester funds, but Republicans refused to budge. So Democrats put politics aside and agreed to the full sequester in the bill, because the economy was too important to halt over one partisan issue.
Here is our offer
We can now move forward in one of two ways. The first is for John Boehner to allow a vote on the Senate bill in the House of Representatives. This is a clean bill which uses the Republican target number for the budget with the full sequester still in force. It does not include anything to do with Obamacare, period. The bipartisan support for passing this bill is growing in the House by the hour. So that's our first offer.
But if Republicans really want to extend the Republican shutdown for weeks, then Democrats are going to start from a brand-new bargaining position. And the first thing we're going to include is the restoration of the sequester funds, because it has been so damaging to the American economy. That's just the first thing we'll be asking for, in any negotiations.
One full year, nothing less
The second thing Democrats will be asking for is that any agreement over a budget will be for a full year instead of the paltry few weeks now covered by the clean Senate bill. There is simply no excuse for not passing a full year's budget, unless anyone thinks the American people are going to be somehow eager to see this fight fought all over again right before the holidays this year. Does anyone really want that? We don't. So any bill we agree to has to have a full year's budget -- that'll be non-negotiable.
Debt ceiling abolished, forever
If a terrorist organization somehow devised a button which, if pressed, could destroy the American dollar's value around the world, who among us would be urging them to make good on their threat? The American dollar, after all, is a big part of what makes the United States an exceptional nation. Since World War II, the American dollar has been the strongest currency on the planet. Other nations, to hedge against their own currency being devalued, stockpile American dollars, just in case. That is exceptional indeed -- the dollar is the world's favorite "reserve currency" for a reason.
The dollar is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States of America. That's it. Just a promise to the world that a dollar will be worth something in the future. But this exceptional standing in the world is threatened, each and every time the "debt ceiling" has to be raised. The entire concept of the debt ceiling, however, is nothing more than a modern fiction which continues to be perpetrated on the American people. No other industrialized nation in the world has such a concept. In all other countries, when budgets are passed, debts are approved. When the American Congress passes a budget that incurs debt, exactly the same thing happens -- they have also approved the debts necessary to fund that budget.
Anyone who reads the plain language of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution can see that the entire concept of a "debt ceiling" -- and, most especially, the threat from some in Congress to refuse to approve debts which have already been incurred -- is nothing short of unconstitutional on the face of it. "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law... shall not be questioned." Got that? Shall not be questioned. That's pretty unambiguous, folks. This language was specifically inserted in order to tie the hands of future Congresses so they couldn't play partisan games with the national debt. That was its purpose. That was its intent. All we will be doing is reconfirming what the Fourteenth Amendment already dictates.
Democrats will now insist -- in any budget legislation proposed -- to include plain language which removes the fiction of the debt ceiling, for all time. We will insist on a clause which states "from this point forward, any spending which is approved by Congress as any part of the federal budget will also, if necessary, adjust the national debt accordingly; to insure the continued full faith and credit of the United States of America and the exceptional nature of the American dollar around the world."
If Republicans vote against the exceptionalism of the American dollar, Democrats' fallback position will be -- as a non-negotiable minimum -- a one-year extension for the debt ceiling. We'll be arguing for its abolishment as a fictional concept forever; but make no mistake, we will not negotiate over extending it for a full year.
"No Budget, No Pay" Constitutional Amendment
Democrats' final bargaining position will be unrelated to the budget bill. Democrats will be introducing an amendment to the Constitution which states that any time a federal budget is not passed and in place at the start of the fiscal year, no member of Congress will be paid. Period. Oh, and no voting to restore any pay withheld during such a period later, either.
Think this is pie in the sky? Think it'd never work? Think again. California used to have terrible problems passing a state budget every year. The legislature was routinely months late in doing so, resulting in state employees being paid with IOUs. So the citizens passed a law by referendum. The law stated that a full budget -- not gimmickry or trickery or "continuing resolutions" -- had to be in place or else lawmakers would not get paid.
Since this law passed, California has not had a single budget delay (except for the first year, when legislators tested the law and the courts cried "foul" on them). Gone are the times when state government shutdowns lasted months or even weeks. Instead, the state legislature passes budgets on time, each and every year. Full budgets. Complete budgets. Every single time.
The threat of not being paid has worked a political miracle in California. We think it would work equally as well at the federal level. So we will be introducing our "No Budget, No Pay" constitutional amendment into both houses of Congress, and part of our agreeing to a budget deal is going to be an agreement by the leadership of both houses of Congress to allow the amendment to be introduced on the floor, to be debated, and to be voted upon.
Our guess is that it'll be hard for any member of Congress to justify voting against such an amendment. Our guess is that it'll be wildly popular out in the state legislatures as they debate ratification. And what's not a guess -- what is absolutely, positively certain -- is that the American people will overwhelmingly support this idea. While we're solving the current shutdown impasse, let's take this step to cut the pay of the people involved in creating any future impasses.
Vote or deal, Speaker Boehner
So, to Speaker John Boehner, we offer two choices. The first is to vote on the Senate's clean budget bill right now. Republicans are defecting from your shutdown hour by hour, and sooner or later it's going to become obvious to all that you are being held captive by a small branch of your own party. You can avoid this by allowing a bipartisan vote on the clean Senate bill right now.
Or, as you have offered, we can continue the Tea Party shutdown, and hash out our differences in some sort of committee. Well, should you choose that route, we've laid out what our bargaining position will be for such a conference: restore the sequester, pass a full year's budget, abolish the fictional debt ceiling forever, and guarantee a vote on a new "No Budget, No Pay" constitutional amendment on the floor of the House.
That's just where we'll be starting from. But I have to warn you, our Democratic membership wants even more. If you continue to insist on attacking Obamacare, then we will begin insisting on attaching the Senate immigration reform bill to the deal. This bill passed with a large bipartisan majority in the Senate, and we are confident that it will pass with an equally-impressive bipartisan majority in the House. So take your choice: violate your own self-imposed Hastert Rule on the clean Senate budget bill right now, or face the prospect that we just might demand you do so on the Senate immigration bill later.
It's your choice, Speaker Boehner. We've laid out our bargaining positions, and it is now up to you to decide what to do next.
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