No amount of balloting can obviate the need of creating an issue, be it a measure or a candidate, on which the voters can say Yes, or No. … The Many can elect after the Few have nominated.

— Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1920)

In this week’s Sift:

  • Hit the Ceiling or Raise the Roof? It’s hard to predict exactly what will happen if Congress doesn’t raise the government’s debt ceiling, because then the administration will have a lot of choices to make. Unfortunately, all the options will be bad.
  • The Sifted Bookshelf: So Damn Much Money by Robert Kaiser. Democracy requires a lot of work. And when honest people won’t do it, it still has to get done.
  • Short Notes. Answering birthers. ElBaradei imagines a Bush war-crimes trial. Senate recalls in Wisconsin. Peer-to-peer lending. Anxious teen girls. Roe v Wade in limbo. And more.
  • This Week’s Challenge. If we don’t want to put the essential work of democracy in the hands of special interests, how do we want to get it done?

Hit the Ceiling or Raise the Roof?

It’s been hard to get a clear story about what will happen if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Michelle Bachman says things will be just hunky-dory:

If we fail to pass increasing the debt ceiling, it isn’t that the federal government shuts down … It isn’t that revenues wouldn’t come into the government, they would. It’s just that we’d have to prioritize our spending. … It almost acts like a balanced budget amendment in a way because it says you can’t keep spending money you don’t have. That’s a good thing!

But back in January, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner made the possibility sound apocalyptic:

The Treasury would be forced to default on legal obligations of the United States, causing catastrophic damage to the economy, potentially much more harmful than the effects of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

And Fed chief Ben Bernanke recently warned:

Beyond a certain point … the United States would be forced into a position of defaulting on its debt. And the implications of that on our financial system, our fiscal policy and our economy would be catastrophic.

Let’s see if I can unravel this. Much as I usually hate the analogy between the federal budget and a family budget (for reasons Matt Yglesias explains), in this case it lends some insight. Suppose your family is spending more than it takes in, running up a little more debt every month. Then your credit maxes out. What happens?

Well, you very suddenly start living within your income — prioritizing your spending, as Bachmann says. But it’s hard to make more specific predictions until we know what those priorities will be. Maybe you’ll default on your mortgage, as Bernanke imagines, or maybe you’ll cut back somewhere else so that you don’t.

Whether “that’s a good thing” or not depends on what somewhere-elses are available. Maybe you’re outspending your income because you’re an alcoholic, and you’ll have to clean up your act now that the liquor store won’t take your plastic. Or maybe you’re running in the red because your daughter needs surgery and you have no medical insurance.

It makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Bachmann wants us to believe that the federal budget is full of money spent at the corner tavern, buying rounds for the house. If that were true, she’d be right. Shutting off the government’s credit would be good.

But she knows it’s not true. Whenever the Right has to produce an actual budget — or anything beyond a “cut spending” slogan — they don’t find significant amounts of waste to eliminate. Instead, they cut Medicaid, which is literally surgeries for uninsured little girls. (It’s not as bad as it sounds. The girls are poor, many are black or Hispanic, and putting them on TV depresses the ratings. So you probably won’t see them.)

The federal budget simply does not have the kind of huge waste the Tea Party imagines. When the government credit card maxes out, are we going to tell our soldiers in Afghanistan to shoot less? Ask seniors to eat cat food and stop taking pills until we get things sorted out? Close the courts? Stop inspecting food or nuclear power plants? Furlough FBI agents and hope Al Qaeda doesn’t notice? Open the federal prisons so the inmates can start supporting themselves? Close the CDC and hope no major plagues erupt before we get it open again? Take our chances on hurricanes and earthquakes without FEMA?

No? Well what, then?

I can’t pick any one of those things and say, “This will happen”, because we could imagine making that particular thing the first priority. (And if it does happen, we could blame President Obama for not making it the first priority — a position Senator Pat Toomey is already staking out.) Similarly, the maxed-out family could make the mortgage the top priority and hope that their daughter gets better on her own. If she dies or never walks again, you can blame them for that. Or if they pay for her treatment first and lose the house, you can blame them for that instead.

But even if we can’t say exactly what it will be, we can be sure that some desperately vital thing will go unfunded if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, because there just aren’t enough non-desperately-vital things to make up the difference.

Anybody who thinks differently, I believe, has an obligation to tell us specifically what those non-vital things are. They owe us a line-by-line spending plan, one that stays within the debt ceiling without killing anybody — or at the very least, estimates the body count.

Slate’s Annie Lowry imagines how a treasury default hits the trading markets, and believes (as I do) that Republicans in Congress will quickly get in line once the markets start crashing. A better question is whether anything resolves the situation before that, which I am coming to doubt.

Salon’s Andrew Leonard makes an obvious point that for some reason isn’t getting any attention: Suppose the government avoids defaulting on its bonds by making debt payments its first priority, and instead defaults on other legal obligations like Social Security. Are the markets going to be reassured by that? Or will investors look at the video of homeless old people and conclude that this country is hopelessly broken?

Do a small-business analogy this time: Suppose I’m a banker who has money in a restaurant. They’re up-to-date on the loan, but I hear they’ve stopped paying their other creditors. Shouldn’t I call that loan in as fast as I can?

Monday, Standard & Poor’s announced a “negative outlook” for the AAA rating on U.S. government debt, citing not the economy, but the political gridlock that might produce trillion-dollar deficits far into the future.

House Republican leader Eric Cantor jumped on this as a “wake-up call” to cut spending, a talking point widely repeated on the Right. But S&P’s warning is about the deficit, not just spending, and Cantor’s refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy is as much a part of the gridlock as Obama’s unwillingness to cut Medicaid. Each is looking out for his supporters — Obama for the poor, Cantor for the rich.

One measure of how far to the right the conversation has drifted is that the middle position is represented by David Stockman, who was Ronald Reagan’s controversial young budget director 30 years ago. Remarkably for a conservative, he quotes statistics about how wealth has concentrated since 1979, and then analyzes:

The culprit here was the combination of ultralow rates of interest at the Federal Reserve and ultralow rates of taxation on capital gains. The former destroyed the nation’s capital markets, fueling huge growth in household and business debt, serial asset bubbles and endless leveraged speculation in equities, commodities, currencies and other assets.

At the same time, the nearly untaxed windfall gains accrued to pure financial speculators, not the backyard inventors envisioned by the Republican-inspired capital-gains tax revolution of 1978. And they happened in an environment of essentially zero inflation, the opposite of the double-digit inflation that justified a lower tax rate on capital gains back then — but which is now simply an obsolete tax subsidy to the rich

The Sifted Bookshelf: So Damn Much Money by Robert Kaiser

Everybody, it seems, hates lobbyists. And every now and then a bipartisan consensus in Congress passes new rules that are supposed to toughen restrictions on lobbyists and clean up the process.

And yet lobbying is a perennial growth industry in Washington. What auto factories used to be to Detroit and steel mills to Pittsburgh, lobbying firms are to D.C. The local economy revolves around them. They may not employ many working-class Washingtonians directly, but how would the city’s bars and restaurants survive without them? Who would build office buildings in Tyson Corners or McMansions in McLean? And what would happen to the metro area’s landscapers and pool-cleaners?

It’s a mystery. Why is it so hard to get a handle on lobbying? How can it be so unpopular and yet so hard to shut down?

This month I got around to reading a great book on lobbying from 2007: So Damn Much Money by Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post. It doesn’t answer those questions directly, but provides a lot of useful insight.

What changed. Kaiser recognizes that American politics has never been clean. But his book’s main point is that both politics and government have changed for the worse since the 1970s, and the growth of lobbying is both a cause and a symptom.

In addition to lobbying, the key elements are:

  • cost of campaigns. The first election I followed closely was 1968, when Hubert Humphrey spent something on the order of $7 million and Richard Nixon overwhelmed him with a then-unheard-of $20 million. For 2012, President Obama is planning to raise $1 billion. At all levels, costs have gone up accordingly. As a result, congresspeople spend about half their working days on the phone raising money.
  • the “permanent campaign”. Old-time campaigns took up maybe half of the last year of a congressman’s term. Then the signs and slogans went into the closet for a while. But in the current era of 24/7 media and instant polling, the campaign never stops. And so politicians of both parties stay on message, parroting focus-group-tested talking points at all times.
  • the end of the independent legislator. This is a perverse result of good intentions: doing away with the seniority system in Congress in the 1970s. Pre-reform, a long-serving representative or senator would become a powerful committee chair. Owing this position to no one but his constituents, he could take independent positions — as when Democratic Senator Fulbright turned against President Johnson’s Vietnam War. Today, all institutional power in Congress comes by way of the party leadership, which explains why we see so many party-line votes.
  • avoiding Washington. Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 by running against Washington. Speaker Gingrich pressured all incoming Republican congresspeople not to move their families to D.C., and he shortened the congressional workweek to allow commuting back to the home districts. Democrats similarly kept their families home and commuted to avoid being labeled “creatures of Washington”. Symbolically, this has kept Congress in touch with the people, but it also has the perverse effect that members of Congress don’t know each other. They don’t socialize, their spouses and kids don’t hang out together, and they have no reason to trust each other.
  • the “farm league for K Street“. In the old days, the point of running for Congress was to be in Congress. Defeated congressmen sometimes became lobbyists, but that was a pathetic story, not something to emulate. Today, Congress and congressional staffs are like college basketball teams — places to get your ticket punched so that you can turn pro and make real money later. In 2007, Senator Lott resigned with five years left in his term, because otherwise new restrictions would have delayed the start of his lobbying career. According to Kaiser: “In a matter of six weeks, Trent Lott abruptly wound up a thirty-five-year career in Congress, abandoned his constituents in Mississippi, and opened a business that Washington rivals estimated would soon be earning millions of dollars a year.” It’s hard to maintain your independence as a legislator when you’re already auditioning for your next job.

The Founders envisioned Congress as a deliberative body. Voters would send their representatives to the capital, where they would debate and compromise and try to arrive at a common purpose for the nation (much like the Constitutional Convention itself).

That simply can’t happen any more. There’s no time for it, and even if you change a congressperson’s mind, s/he may not have the independence to vote differently. Instead, we have what Eric Alterman calls “kabuki democracy” — a show of deliberation in which senators address the camera, not other senators.

Personalizing the problem. Kaiser has a good trick for knitting an unwieldy mass of information into a readable story: He follows the career of Gerry Cassidy, a lawyer who came to Washington in the late 1960s as a poorly-paid staffer to Senator McGovern, then started a lobbying firm whose early clients were universities, and over the decades has accumulated a fortune of $100 million.

Cassidy is a great choice, because he is not a pure villain. In many ways he resembles Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark — a young man of considerable gifts who simultaneously dreams of being important and of doing good, but who ends up just being important. Where exactly he goes wrong is hard to pinpoint. Cassidy seems to ride the wave of political change rather than steer it, but when you analyze the wave, it seems to be made of nothing more than people like Cassidy.

And that’s a phenomenon we all need to understand if we’re ever going to change things.

Privatizing democracy. Here’s what I conclude after reading Kaiser: Democracy is a much more expensive and effort-consuming process than most of us imagine. Because we aren’t willing to recognize or fund that work, it gets done privately. And the private funders take advantage of their role to steer our government for their own benefit.

Let me unpack that. Naively, democracy works through elected representatives doing the people’s will. But, as Lippmann pointed out in the opening quote, “the people’s will” doesn’t become actionable (and may not even exist) until after somebody does a lot of work. Who?

The people, for example, may broadly want access to health care. But how does that shared desire turn into a plan of action? And how does that plan then become an Affordable Care Act that a person can be for or against? (I didn’t work on it. Did you?) Once the ACA exists, who educates the public about what’s in it, so that they can approve or disapprove? Who measures the resulting public opinion and organizes it into pressure that a legislator can feel, or into support s/he can ride to re-election?

In simpler times, legislators did much of this work themselves. With the help of a small staff, they studied issues, intuited public opinion, wrote legislation, rounded up colleagues to support it, and wrote speeches and newsletters to promote or denounce the outcome.

There’s no time for that any more. The issues have gotten more complex and the science of manipulating public opinion more resource-consuming. Staffs have grown, but not nearly enough to keep pace. Legislators have their hands full reciting talking points on TV and raising money for the next election.

Who fills the vacuum? Not corporate-funded journalists, who have become another part of the problem. (But that’s a subject for another week.) So: lobbyists, privately funded think tanks, high-priced pollsters and political consultants. They write the legislation, convene the focus groups, and produce the talking points. They organize the demonstrations and make sure the TV cameras are pointed in the right direction. And ultimately, they fund and produce the election campaigns.

In short, the work democracy requires — the enormous effort needed to turn vague popular desires into programs and laws that can pass through Congress — is being done by privately funded groups. Some of them, on some issues, promote the public interest. But most are working in the interest of their funders. Why wouldn’t they?

And that explains why we haven’t been able to get rid of them: They are corruptly doing work that ought to be done honestly, but which in any case needs to get done somehow. Until we figure out how to get that work done without them, they’ll always sneak back into the process.

Short Notes

If friends or relatives keep forwarding you stuff about where President Obama was born, send them here.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who headed the International Atomic Energy Agency during the run-up to the Iraq War (and who more recently played a role in the Egyptian uprising) just wrote a book. ElBaradei had to deal with countries like North Korea, but he saves some of his harshest words for the Bush administration:

“I was aghast at what I was witnessing,” ElBaradei writes of the official U.S. attitude before the March 2003 invasion, which he calls “aggression where there was no imminent threat,” a war in which he accepts estimates that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed.

In such a case, he suggests, the World Court should be asked to rule on whether the war was illegal. And, if so, “should not the International Criminal Court investigate whether this constitutes a `war crime’ and determine who is accountable?”

Wisconsin update: Recall petitions have been filed on five Republican and three Democratic state senators. The signatures are being validated, but if they hold up, new elections will be held in these eight districts. Democrats need to pick up three seats to gain control.

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo explains, where strangers lend each other money over the internet. My first reaction was “That’s crazy.” But maybe not.

Somebody close to you has been keeping a secret file of all the places you go together. It’s your iPhone.

At age 11, boys and girls are equally likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. At age 15, girls are six times more likely. The different explanations of this phenomenon are a Rorschach test on attitudes about gender: Female hormones. Society’s impossible demands on adolescent girls. Or a lack of empathy for teen-age boys turns their anxiety disorders into anger-management problems.

Slate’s Dahlia LIthwick says that for practical purposes, Roe v Wade isn’t the law any more. State legislatures are boldly passing laws that violate it, and pro-choice organizations are afraid to take these cases to the Supreme Court.

This Week’s Challenge

Publicly funded campaigns are part of the solution for fixing Congress, but that’s not all the work that needs to get done. And public funding to do the rest of it — like organize and develop public opinion, or educate the public about proposed legislation — could rapidly turn into 1984’s Ministry of Truth. Brainstorm some alternatives. How does the work of democracy get done in a way that is independent of both the incumbent government and the special interests?

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • Anonymous  On April 25, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    I fear that money is too entrenched at the national level and that we cannot expect improvement there. Our best how is to work on the local level to create a better life for all Americans. Progressives need to run for every office, from school board to mayor, if we want to maintain any sort of quality life for our children.

  • John L  On April 27, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    I wish I were surprised that Michelle Bachman's “solution” to the debt limit is to pay back Chinese bondholders and skip Grandma's social security check.

  • Mike Ignatowski  On May 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    In terms of organizing, educating, and developing public opinion, is public television and radio an example of what could be done? How well does this work in England with the BBC? Are there any other countries that have a good working solution?

  • Mike Ignatowski  On May 1, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    One solution to “doing the work of democracy” that always fascinated me is the one used to chose which military bases were to be closed several years ago. Pick about 100 citizens at random, eliminate some obviously unqualified, then charge the rest with studying the problem in detail and working out a solution together. They don't have to worry about re-election, can't be influenced by campaign contributions, and are not constrained by loyalty to party machinery, so they are more free to do the right thing. I seems like an interesting alternative to solve seemingly intractable problems

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