The debt ceiling shouldn’t be a suicide pact…

The debt ceiling has been an evolving creature since 1917 and started life as something of a thought exercise. In handing over some of their spending power (a Legislative Branch function) to the Treasure (an Executive Branch department), long dead Members of Congress thought that if their future selves had to have their votes counted in order for the U.S. Government to continue taking on large tranches of debt, maybe it would restrain them from profligate borrowing. Some of the more wild-eyed optimists among them, I’m sure, thought that it might even usher in a new day of not constantly spending more money than the federal government takes in.

For most of the last hundred years, though, raising the debt ceiling became just a normal part of doing business. No serious person ever considered putting the United States Government in a position where it would default on its lawfully begotten debts. That’s changed in the last 20-30 years, of course. I suspect there’s now more than a few Members of Congress who would cheer on a default and smile for the cameras while they watched the resulting economic chaos.

Republican controlled Congresses have raised the debt ceiling. Democratic controlled Congresses have raised the debt ceiling. Divided Congresses have raised the debt ceiling. Presidents of both parties have presided over these increases while gnashing their teeth about runaway spending.

Can we please, then, just stop pretending that the debt ceiling is anything more than a bomb we’ve allowed to grow in the heart of the government? With the total federal debt now standing at $31 trillion dollars, let us admit that the debt ceiling is a work of fiction that has don’t nothing to stand between us and racking up unimaginable levels of indebtedness. The only thing it’s really done is create a mechanism by which it’s possible to decimate the global economy if the hands of the incompetents and ideologues now serving in Congress. Better that this failed experiment in limiting federal spending be put on the ash heap of history than allowing it to linger around like some kind of damned suicide pact.

Weak in size and spirit…

The occupant of the White House is a member of the Democratic Party. Members of the Democratic Party also constitute the majority, though a slim one, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This week they’ll be struggling mightily to pass monumentally large spending bills, not crash headlong into the debt ceiling, and keep the lights on at federal departments and agencies across the country.

One thing I think we’re going to have to give up now is the illusion that our legislative process is broken because one party or another is made up entirely of obstructionists who live to say “no.” When one of those parties holding all the reigns of power is still struggling or fails to get their agenda passed, the fiction of blaming the opposition party is awfully hard to sustain.

If the party in power fails to pass signature portions of their own president’s agenda or fails to gin up the votes for their own spending priorities, or can’t manage that most basic of Congressional functions – passing the federal budget – that tells me not only is the majority weak in size, but also weak in spirit. If the Congressional Democrats can’t get the job done when they hold all the reigns, they’re ripe to be picked off in the 2022 election cycle.

So as it turns out both of our dominate political parties are bad. One because it will cheerfully burn the republic to the ground if it means they get to hang on to power and the other because they can’t find the matches with both hands and a flashlight.

Shutdown prep…

Years ago, the federal government was touted as stable employment, promising a career that wouldn’t make you rich, but ensured that you wouldn’t die poor. It was a guarantee of a solidly middle class lifestyle during your working years and a comfortable retirement when the time came. The trade off, for such stability was forgoing the big salaries that could sometimes be had for similar work in the private sector. Those salaries, of course, came with risk that the contract that paid so well could disappear overnight.

Stable is a relative term, of course. Over the last fifteen years I’ve worked through hiring freezes, furloughs, and more government shut downs than I can really remember. That’s not the hallmark of a particularly stable employer. Then again, when I look at the elected officials who the people, in their questionable wisdom, have sent to Washington to represent them, “stable” isn’t a world I’d choose to use for many of them – both the politicians and the electorate.

So here I am, with the next government shut down hovering in the wings, once again preparing to defer or stop payments and dramatically reduce the scope and scale of operations at Fortress Jeff.

I’ve got enough years on me now to ride out a run of the mill government shutdown if I must. Still, planning for a few weeks or months without pay does make you question going with the “stable” choice all those years ago. If you’re going to be planning how to cut spending down to the bone every couple of years anyway, maybe some of those contract jobs would have been better in the end.

Our elected representatives are increasingly incapable of acting like grown adults, but then again, the same is true of the people who elect them. The curse of democracy is we continue to get exactly the kind of politicians, government, and society that we deserve.

Honoring the public debt…

It feels like only yesterday that we were last arguing about whether or not the government was going to (or should) raise or suspend the debt ceiling – the legislatively applied limit to the amount the US Government is allowed to borrow in order to keep on conducting business as usual. I’m the first to tell you that Uncle Sam’s hallways and offices are filled to the brim with wasteful spending… but trying to get after that waste by passing a law that says we can only borrow $X unless Congress passes another law to say we can spend $Y more isn’t a recipe to actual limit or reduce government spending. At best, the debt ceiling creates political theater. Now that it’s a thing we have, however, failure to raise the self-imposed limit and drive the federal government into default would result in all manner of catastrophic outcomes. 

I see today that we’re now in the period where the Treasury has begin exercising “extraordinary measures” that should be sufficient to keep us out of default for the time being. The congressional office responsible for making such projections says it’ll probably be October or November before we actually run out of wiggle room. Based on recent history, that will be about the time Congress gets around to doing something. 

Before we go into default and our bond rating collapses, though, we have to get through what’s supposed to be the federal budget season. Given the current state of our politics, I’m not in any way expecting there to be an actual approved operating budget when Fiscal Year 2022 kicks off on the October 1st. Who knows, maybe we’ll end up with a perfect storm of impending default and no functioning bureaucracy simultaneously. That feels like a recipe for good times. 

If anyone needs me, I’ll be over here restocking my supply of beans and spam in case we need to ride out a post-plague economic apocalypse. Given the kind of leadership we have in all quarters it feels like the only reasonable course of action. I mean I’m due for some extra time off… with eventual back pay, of course.

Two days…

I’m back at work. Have been since last week. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped paying attention to the grand game of “How Many Asshats can We Fit in One Building?” that our political “leaders” are playing on the Hill. As bad as it is that Republicans and Democrats seem physiological incapable of talking to one another, that’s nothing compared to the truly remarkable feat of House Republicans apparently not even being able to talk amongst themselves. That takes political incompetence to a whole new level. Impressive work, Congressmen.

From my reading of the tea leaves, we’re inside the 48 hour mark now. Either these jackasses will get around to doing the hard work of governing or they’ll crank the throttle wide open and let it all fly off the rails. I’m a reasonable close watcher of politics and a betting man by nature, but even if I wasn’t owed back pay and had a fist full of cash, I wouldn’t lay a bet on which way this shitshow is going to break.

Universal wisdom is that careening headlong into the debt ceiling would be bad. The fun part? Absolutely no one knows how bad it might be. My reading pegs it somewhere along the scale of Accidental Nuclear Detonation in Times Square Bad. Even if it’s less bad than that, it’s going to be bad. Defaulting on the sovereign debt and/or other financial obligations of the United States is simply unimaginable from any sane, reasonable perspective. To do it over an issue of personal pride or to make cheap political points is damned near treasonous.

We have 536 “leaders” in Washington and there’s apparently not one damned statesman in the bunch.

The storm before the bigger storm…

So the intrepid leadership of the Dysfunction of Defense has magically discovered a way to reduce the total number of required furlough days for civilian personnel from eleven to six. On the surface, that sounds like a fine thing and if you’re not picky about the details and surrounding circumstances, I suppose it would be. Being the slightly jaded and cynical jerk that I am, of course, I have a slightly different take on how things are going inside that five sided funny farm on the banks of the Potomac.

As close as I can figure, reducing the number of furlough days probably has as much if not more to do with the legal requirements for the Department to close the books on the fiscal year before the clock strikes midnight on September 30th. Someone, somewhere deep in the bowels of The Building has probably realized that along with the rest of us schleps, the finance and logistics people they need to close out the fiscal year are also working 20% fewer days and not authorized overtime. In my experience, that makes completing the year end financial festivities a statistical impossibility. Woops.

Another perk of getting everyone back to the office in the next week or two is that it gets everyone into a nice routine for the inevitable shitstorm that’s going to take place at the start of FY14. My best guess is that the fiscal year about to start on October 1st will include such highly sought after features as Debt Ceiling Induced Government-wide Shutdown, Furlough: Part II, Reductions in Force, and Pay Freeze: Part 4. Hopefully I’m wrong about some or all of those predictions, but I don’t think I am.

I have the sinking feeling that this six day furlough was a dry run – the storm before the even bigger storm ahead.