October 12, 2013
Legislating Through Appropriation
By Abraham H. Miller
So you're one of those Democrats that -- with a sense of moral outrage -- demand a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling and fund ObamaCare. Here's the problem. Since 1978, the debt ceiling was raised 55 times, and in over half those legislative struggles, there was no clean bill sent forward. Debt ceiling votes are an opportunity to manipulate the legislative agenda. In 1984, the Democrats voted en mass to prevent the debt ceiling from being raised, saying they would not let Republicans walk away from their debt. The debt at the time was a mere 1.8 trillion, compared to the current nearly 17 trillion.
Debt ceiling votes are times for both political theater and getting partisan projects passed under the threat of shutting down the government. In 1989, the Democratic-controlled Congress raised the debt ceiling and eliminated a tax credit for employer-funded health insurance.
It's called legislating through appropriation. Republicans do it. Democrats do it. It's part of the legislative process. It's not illegal. It's not immoral. And it is most certainly constitutional. As a strategy, it only invokes moral outrage when someone's sacred cow is being sacrificed in the struggle.
Using appropriations, in a variety of circumstances, to make policy is a time-honored tradition. There was no moral outrage, for example, when Congress terminated funding to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and spurned the commitments the Nixon administration made to the South Vietnamese in order to get them to sign the Paris Peace Accords. Congress used the appropriations process to nullify executive foreign policy.
In 1982, Congress blocked the Reagan administration's policies in Nicaragua by preventing both the military and the CIA from using their funding to supply arms to the Contras.
Not raising the debt ceiling is irresponsible, President Obama now says. As a young senator, however, Obama militated against raising the debt ceiling, calling the need to do so a failure of leadership and the creation of an enormous burden for our children. In 2006, he translated these sentiments into action and voted against raising the debt ceiling.
Clearly, one's stand on the debt ceiling depends on where one sits. And while failure to raise the debt ceiling will have consequences in the financial markets and among the rating services, the continuing cycle of debt and spending, in the long term, is an even greater threat to the viability and structure of the economy.
The rating agencies are calling for a lowering of the national debt relative to the nation's economic output, even as the Chinese express concern that if the debt ceiling itself is not raised by October 17, it will seriously affect the security of their investments in the United States.
The Japanese are upset that the debt ceiling issue weakens the dollar and strengthens the yen as a residual safe currency. Japan's economy is dependent on exports. A strong yen and a weak dollar are the opposite of what the Japanese want. But such concerns, like those of the Chinese, reflect short-term issues. The overwhelming issue facing the American economy is the increasing national debt and the continuing and unrestrained cycle of spending.
When that long-term crisis manifests itself in the world's markets, no one is going to blow a horn or ring a bell to announce it. It will be like the economic crisis of 2008. People will go to work. Everything will look normal. But the capital markets will be shut down. Banks will not lend to each other. GE credit will close its windows. There will be a fevered rush by economic elites to keep things going, to enable airlines to fly, gas to be pumped, and bank depositors to be paid.
Averting that crisis is the real issue. That issue is more important than the short-term debt ceiling and forcing a health-care program on Americans that they do not want and that appears not to be workable.
Republicans have been incapable of explaining the danger to the average American. Democrats seem to believe it will never happen, that they can continue to monetize the nation's economic problems. No one really contemplates that there will be a Treasury auction for which few investors will show.
In the meantime, the callous, cynical, and contemptible implementation of the shutdown raises profound questions as to whether any administration can be trusted not to play politics with the nation's health care. The shutting down of open-air memorials, the Bay of Biscayne, and the Grand Canyon, all of which were unnecessary, show a cynical attempt to spend money during the shutdown to inflict pain on the public. The evictions of people who receive no federal services but whose homes sit on federal lands, show such callousness that Commentary magazine suggested that the administration show some consistency by evicting Michelle Obama's mother from the White House.
As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, politics is the art of compromise and conciliation. It is time to take down the rhetoric, the hyperbole, and the misplaced outrage. What is happening in Washington is legislation by appropriation. It's not unprecedented. It simply requires an end to drawing lines and for negotiations to begin.