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Legislating the triangle

Greg Sargent writes Our current governing crisis, in two sentences:

  1. Only one party is demanding major concessions from the other in exchange for keeping the government open at sequester spending levels—levels leaders of that same party have already declared is a victory for them—while the other party is demanding exactly nothing in exchange for doing that.
  2. Only one party is demanding major concessions from the other in exchange for making it possible for the U.S. to pay its bills—an outcome leaders of the same party have already declared is necessary to spare the country default and economic havoc—while the other party is demanding exactly nothing in exchange for doing that.

I think that’s a bit muddled, but essentially I agree with him: Our Party has not identified any particular policy preferences (other than the fulfillment of previously enacted legislation) and the Other Party has not identified anything in the policy arena that they are willing to give up (whether previously enacted or not)—they are willing to give up the leverage of holding the CR or the debt bill, but those aren’t, as far as I can tell, actual policy priorities of their Party—they don’t think, for instance, that we shouldn’t have a federal budget at all, or that we shouldn’t bring our laws into agreement with each other. Perhaps I’m wrong! Maybe that is what they think! But probably not.

It does, however, lead me to ask: if My Party were to suggest removing the debt limit as a separate piece of legislation altogether, would that be a concession of some kind? And if so, whose? I mean, as various people have been saying each time it comes up, the current legislation mandates a certain level of revenues, mandates a certain level of expenditures and separately mandates the maximum difference between those two. The usual method of dealing with that is to set that maximum to a number that makes it unnecessary for a period of time, and then to set it again, and again, and again. But we could make it unnecessary forever, couldn’t we?

I mean in some ways legislating the debt limit independently from revenues and expenditures is like legislating pi. Right? I mean the debt is whatever it is, and legislating it without legislating revenues and expenditures is like, I don’t know, putting a legal limit on the amount of snowfall in December? Legislating that the rain should only fall after sundown? Legislating that if a is less than c and b is less than c, then a and b must be less than each other? Or maybe it’s like legislating that the earth should continue going around the sun—until the legislation expires in a year’s time.

This is connected with a thing that Jon Bernstein has been on about: people in general don’t think of the deficit as the difference between revenues and expenses. They think of the deficit as spending on stuff I don’t like or as wasteful spending or even as a bad economy. They don’t, by the way, think of it as bridges and libraries or my uncle’s pension or clean food and water—which wouldn’t be any less accurate. So if the deficit is just some sort of bad spending-related thing then it makes sense to have a third piece of the legislation. If, on the other hand, the deficit is just defined by the difference between income and outgo, which it is, then legislating that amount is— at best, unnecessary.

And this is true, it seems to me, completely independent of what you think the proper level of revenue is, or what you think the proper level of spending is, or what you think the proper level of deficit is. It’s just a description. It’s not a policy at all. And yet, I can’t help thinking that getting rid of that unnecessary-at-best bit of legislation would be considered by everybody to be a concession by the Other Party to My Party. And a big one, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.