Thursday, October 10, 2013

Explaining Senator Obama's Debt Limit Speech

Matt Yglesias had a fun item yesterday with a little analysis of Barack Obama's speech against, and vote against, raising the debt limit back in 2006. It's a good item:
All in all, a pretty ridiculous display. But note what Obama doesn't do—attempt to hold the country hostage in order to advance a policy agenda. To use a technical term, what Obama's doing here is bullshitting. The debt ceiling bill has majority support in both houses and is clearly going to pass. Rather than doing the right thing and voting "yes," Obama has decided to make a "no" vote and then deliver a speech denouncing George W. Bush's fiscal policy. But he's not organizing a filibuster. The fact that the bill passed the Senate 52-48 is a huge tell. Nothing passes the Senate with 52 votes if the minority party is actually trying to stop it from passing. Obama didn't demand the partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts as the price for his debt ceiling vote because he didn't demand anything as his price for his debt ceiling vote. There was no negotiation, no demand, no effort to block passage, and actually no effort to do anything at all. It was just a forum for silly speeches.
All correct, but there's one bit to add to it. Well, actually two; it's worth noting that Democrats had rid Congress of these stupid votes at one point, but the Newt Republicans brought them back.

But the main thing I wanted to add is that Democrats were probably stuck with "no" votes on this -- because if they voted for it, then Republicans would have been able to vote against it. No, it's not really much of an excuse for giving foolish speeches, but that's what politicians do, and I'm not going to fault them for it. The vote itself, however? I really don't remember the circumstances, and I'm not going to look it up, but my strong assumption is that it's far more about preventing Republican "no" votes than from trying to get any mileage out of their own display.

Does that leave Obama off the hook?

Nope. Because Democrats had four years with majorities in Congress, and two of those with the White House as well, and they didn't take care of this.

There's basically no excuse. Would eliminating the debt limit (or perhaps just fudging it with some procedural nonsense) have been a mildly tough vote? Sure -- but it would have been clearly worth it to eliminate every future tough vote on it. Even if they couldn't foresee what Republicans have done with it after 2010, they certainly knew the history of it.

Indeed: I suspect that there are several of these lurking around, stuff that Democrats had the votes for in 2009 but didn't think to take care of. Stuff that committee staff know about; stuff that people at OMB know about. Things that would have been at worst mildly controversial, but that probably no one would have bothered to oppose at all. And I don't at all get the sense that anyone put someone in charge of figuring out which things they should enact, now that they had the chance.

Just to be clear: I'm not talking about massively stacking the deck in their favor. But a little aggressive tinkering? Not a bad idea, and one that really could have happened.


  1. Given all the stuff they did get done in the 2 years they had complete control, it's hard to fault them for not getting this done. Plus there would have been a massive incentive for the Rs to filibuster (maybe even a talkie one!) and make the vote even more difficult.

    Should they have used their limited capital to push this through instead of some of the stuff they did get done?

    1. 2 years???
      they had 11 weeks with 60 Dem votes, since Repugs delayed Franken, then Kennedy too sick to vote, then 11 weeks after Kennedy's replacement was seated until Mass voted for a Republican Senator.

    2. Anon:

      Fair point, but we don't go for derogatory nicknames around here. Clean it up.

  2. You think that scrapping a provision with close to 100 years of history behind it would have been only a "mildly tough vote"? I think you underestimate the potentials for demagoguery. Certainly Senators Lincoln, Landrieu, et. al. would not have voted for it, so I don't see a filibuster-busting majority in the Senate.

    1. One hundred years of history or not, it hasn't properly been part of Congressional oversight since 1974, and nothing bad seems to have happened during the 14 years the Gephardt rule was in effect.

    2. If today's proposal by Boehner goes through, Republicans will have the joy of voting for a debt limit increase this week, and then again in December!

      They must really enjoy taking these votes.

  3. This overlooks the fact that "centrist" Democrats are the deepest of all debt bullshitters. No makes more irresponsible use of devices like the debt ceiling than them, and they wouldn't have been willing to give it up, even if one had definitively convinced them that it was a weapon lying in plain view that Republicans would use in a few years.

  4. It wouldn't have been good optics for the Dems. Just imagine, the Dems win the triple crown, and they use that power to change the credit card limit to infinity. The optics of that are worse than bad, they're terrible.


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