Remember on Friday when we declared American politics too selfishly broken to address the basic management of the United States? It turns out we were wrong, because the President and congressional leaders reached a deal on the national debt ceiling last night. The package still needs the support of both houses—including several notoriously intransigent members—but tentatively, maybe even presumably, the lights are going to stay on. “Sausage making is not pretty,” Diane Feinstein told the Times. “But the sausage we have, I think, is a very different sausage from when we started.” And in the end, isn’t that what we all what from our food? Different?
Exactly how the sausage differs is not yet clear. Boehner and the Republican caucus stood firm on their demand that the deal contain no new sources of revenue, which doesn’t sound as crappy if you refer to revenue as taxes. Democrats refused cuts to Medicare and student loans, and both sides avoided steep cuts to defense in order to preserve support of hawkish Representatives. That basically leaves panda management and office supplies over at State, but somehow the boys wrung out $2.4 trillion in cuts during the next decade.
In exchange, they get a two-step increase in the debt ceiling: $900 billion now and between $1.2 and $1.5 trillion next year. Exactly who “they” are is perhaps the most contentious aspect of this whole issue. Both increases are subject to votes of disapproval by Congress, which the President can subsequently veto. Having done very little and nothing, respectively, the Republican and Democratic congressional caucuses—constitutionally responsible for this and all previous debt ceiling increases—have made participation in their jobs contingent on their right to declare displeasure with what they’re doing.
Such behavior is disingenuous in the extreme. While Republicans at least had the decency to offer a series of unrealistic political gestures, congressional Democrats have essentially delegated their authority to the President. Harry Reid put a plan on the Senate floor yesterday, but it died under threat of filibuster faster than you can say “60 is the new 50.” Now that POTUS has done their negotiating for them, Congress has thanked him by reserving the right to censure him for the plan they will approve. This is like saying you don’t care where you eat dinner and complaining bitterly once you get there, a strategy made no more admirable by its popularity.
So Congress will officially vote to borrow more money shortly before it votes—probably with total unanimity—that borrowing more money is wrong, and then the President will get to decide whether to veto their disapproval. It is the leadership that disclaims all responsibility for leading, and it’s probably what got us our eleventy gajillion-dollar debt in the first place. It’s also the great advantage/flaw of democratic systems.
Because there are 100 senators and 1,083 representatives, any one member of Congress can pretend that he isn’t responsible for the body’s decisions. That’s not true, of course. Congress is responsible for Congress’s decisions; Congress reaches decisions by debating as a group and then voting, and Congress has no consciousness except that of its constituent members. Ergo, each member is responsible for Congress’s decisions, because where else could responsibility lie?
Yet the beauty of voting is that no one vote really matters. This dynamic allows individual congresspeople to make “principled” objections—as when Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling as a senator—that aren’t principled at all, since they carry no consequences. In their participation in a system for which they claim no responsibility even though they are as responsible as anyone else, our congresspeople resemble us. We elected them, after all, yet we regularly disclaim those bozos in Washington. We voted them in and paid taxes to support their annual borrowing meetings just like anybody else, yet the majority of the responsibility for them lies with everybody else. Thus does democracy slither on, a snake continually regurgitating its own tail.