the national interest

Last Week, a Senator Exposed the Insanity of Washington for One Night, Then Gave Up

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 17: U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) speaks during a news conference December 17, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Sen. Coburn held the news conference to release
Photo: Alex Wong/2013 Getty Images

Last Thursday night, there was a rare, fleeting, and almost totally unnoticed moment on the Senate floor that lent a brief glimpse into the madness that has settled so deeply into the background of Washington that hardly anybody notices it anymore. In the midst of a debate about extending funding for Iron Dome, the U.S.-funded anti-missile system protecting Israeli civilians from death and destruction at the hands of a Hamas blitzkrieg, Tom Coburn insisted on blocking the passage. “I want to fund Israel,” announced the Oklahoma Republican. “I also want to make sure our children have a future.”

What Coburn meant by this was that he supported the underlying objective, but opposed its price tag of $225 million, or approximately six-hundredths of one percent of the federal budget. The implications of Coburn’s stand were so terrifying, immediate, and devastating to the security of Israel, not to mention the prospective Republican Senate majority, that he quickly backed down, and the next morning the two parties swiftly approved the funding. But the principle of the point lay there, unaddressed. You could say that Tom Coburn is upholding his party’s principles in a courageous and consistent fashion. You could also say he is a dangerous, ideological fanatic. Both those descriptions would be correct.

Photo: David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images

The sort of hyperbolic rhetoric used by Coburn here — “make sure our children have a future” — is, if anything, a subdued version of the sorts of claims Republicans have routinely made since President Obama took office. It justified the extraordinary tactics the party used to confront Obama. Risking a debt default was necessary in order to save the country from the Greece-like meltdown that was certain to happen, or may already be in the process of happening. They have given up on the default games of chicken, and mostly given up on the fearful nightmare rhetoric as well.

And that hysterical period has left behind a powerful residue. Republicans continue to cling to an opposition to spending that has paralyzed basic government functions. The purported logic is that any “new” spending must be offset, so as not to increase the deficit. Republicans are happy to exempt spending on agriculture subsidies, or targeted tax breaks for businesses. They oppose on alleged fiscal-responsibility grounds such things as emergency unemployment benefits.

Even on its own ideological terms, the Republican insistence on offsetting most spending is unserious. Most federal spending comes in either interest on the debt or social insurance programs, like Medicare and Social Security — all of which are funded on autopilot. The Republican fiscal vise is limited to those programs subject to annual appropriation, which account for a small and shrinking portion of the federal budget. Many of these programs are not even objectionable to Republicans themselves. And yet the “rules” they have established paralyze them even from extending programs they themselves support.

Enough respectability still clings to this pose of fiscal responsibility that Democrats, fearful of appearing spendthrift, accede to these fiscal Alice in Wonderland rules. So, for instance, Congress has engaged in a Kabuki ritual of producing budget changes to “pay for” federal highway funding. Both parties support maintaining (or increasing) highway spending. But they agree on the Republican demand that even extending highway funding at its current levels would amount to offensive overspending. So, offsets must be found.

Yet producing offsets — measures that reduce the deficit by a corresponding amount to clear room for “new” spending — plunges the two sides into a familiar gridlock. Democrats are happy to entertain deficit reduction if it includes a mix of revenue and spending cuts; Republicans insist that deficit reduction is vital enough to rise to the level of civilizational imperative but not so vital as to permit any compromise on taxes.

Obama’s America, any day now. Photo: Milos Bicanski/2012 Getty Images

Faced with an immovable logjam, the two parties can only move ahead by producing phony savings. They did this last year by extending imaginary future cuts in return for lifting sequestration cuts opposed by all sides. The highway bill does it again by imposing changes to corporate pension rules. These changes let companies take money out of their employees’ pension funds, and keep it as profit, some of which will throw off higher tax revenue in the short term. In the long run, it will cost more revenue than it saves, but official budget rules only extend ten years, so this change officially reduces the deficit. The trouble is that there are only so many of these gimmicks to go around, leaving many important functions of the state lacking a putative funding mechanism.

Why are these contortions even necessary at all, with the budget deficit having shrunk to minuscule levels, and the threat of hyperinflation and spiking interest rates now a bad joke? If we are no longer about to become Greece, can we go back to funding our roads and such?

Deficit fearmongers have not had to entertain why Washington must continue submitting to this grinding regimen of dysfunctionality when the emergency used to justify it has passed. Coburn, to his credit, openly made the case (our children are in danger and so forth), if only for a few hours. The rest of his colleagues shrugged and moved on, because we need to spend money on things like shooting down terrorist missiles aimed at civilian allies. But if we can just write the check without the pretense this time, why not do so all the time?

Senator Exposed D.C. Insanity for One Night