Details emerge from the debt-ceiling deal like a turned over box of shredded wheat – broken, grainy, messy bits and pieces of grain falling into a cereal bowl of uncertainty. When milk is added it becomes a soupy mess falling like drool off the spoon. That was the best way to describe the top of the week as chastened lawmakers appeared from Congressional offices announcing the mechanics of a new deal averting what observers and social media mavens were jokingly referring to as “Armadebton.”
Ultimately, it passed the biggest hurdle: an ideological House characterized by raucous partisan shenanigans and sandbox play over the past couple of weeks. By a 269-161 vote on Monday night as severe thunder storms fell over parts of Washington, Democratic and Republican members were cobbled together into an unwilling bipartisan coalition – put together for the sole purpose of avoiding a devastating default of federal obligations.
In a dose of movie-like drama, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) suddenly appeared to cast her vote in favor of the debt-ceiling package, the first time she had voted since the tragic Tuscon shooting in January.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), clearly taking count of her caucus, begged members on a disgusted left to support the measure. “If you’re on the fence on this – I certainly am, and have been – please think of what could happen if we default,” pleaded Pelosi. “Please, please, please come down in favor of preventing the collateral damage from reaching our seniors and veterans.”
It was a “too-big-to-fail” moment. House leaders on both sides of the aisle, stunned by outright rebellion from the hard corners of their caucuses, struggled to rally just enough votes under the looming threat of a debt-ceiling deadline that promised four horseman of an economic apocalypse.
This wasn’t bi-partisanship by any measure. It was pure desperation. Now, the measure moves on to the Senate where it will more than likely pass without as much fanfare and drunken hot mess as the House.
Founding Congressional Budget Office director Alice Rivlin (famously known for her leading backstage role in the rapid gentrification and de-chocolatization of Washington, D.C. as the District’s former control board chair), called it the “unnecessary crisis.” Indeed, it was. Negotiations over the past several weeks were a war movie of the actors’ own making, a cacophony of petulance, power and uncompromising greed played out by both sides of the partisan equation. Every week closer to the August 2nd deadline would end on a remote Friday happy note of possible compromise by the following Monday – only to be derailed by dissonant detached idiots poking fun at one another on weekend talk shows bringing it back to square one.
In the end, the compromise seemed remarkably lopsided with Republicans claiming political victory. “If I wrote this myself, it would look different. But I wouldn’t agree to it or put it on the floor if it violated our principles or would hurt the economy,” was House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) reportedly on a late night, last minute Sunday conference call with GOP troops about the specifics of the plan. “I’m not celebrating, but I’m going to hail the courage of all of you for helping us take this giant step forward.”
“Grab a Gatorade and smoke a cigarette. You’ve earned it,” was the gregarious Northwestern Pennsylvania car dealer, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), brownnosing the leader.
But, what exactly was earned wasn’t too clear to the average observer who watched in utter WTF at a momentous break down in American political process. Attempts at compromise and wrapping-it-up were met with eager dysfunction as stubborn contingents of House Republicans, turning insurgent on their leaders, rejected tax increases as a condition of revenue generation for the painful cuts put on the table. Last report, the deal amounted to $2.1 trillion in across the board cuts in an effort to control the ginormous $14 trillion federal deficit. Death of programs by a trillion paper cuts would be achieved in phases. $917 billion would be cut from the deficit in a “first phase” round. Another $1.2 trillion would be cut by a new Congressional “super committee” – Washington’s dud of a creative way to distinguish recent efforts from the work of so many ill-fated “bi-partisan” commissions stacked with good intentions, but lacking in execution.
Somehow, the “super committee” is supposed to conjure up comic book fantasy, as if the players in this debate were like pre-teen boys crashing their action figures in bouts of play dates. There was even the creation of a “trigger” mechanism, like some cool water gun in a Cartoon Network commercial, developed as a way to automatically crack budget whip and impose 4 percent defense and entitlement cuts when the super committee’s cape fails to make it fly.
The Congressional Budget Office inserted itself as serious, monotone old school teacher with the yard stick,putting it all into perspective. “If appropriations in the next 10 years are equal to the caps on discretionary spending and the maximum amount of funding is provided for the program integrity initiatives, CBO estimates that the legislation—apart from the provisions related to the joint select committee—would reduce budget deficits by $917 billion between 2012 and 2021,” said CBO, acting as the unbiased measuring stick for any fiscal sanity. “In addition, legislation originating with the joint select committee, or the automatic reductions in spending that would occur in the absence of such legislation, would reduce deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over the 10-year period. Therefore, the deficit reduction stemming from this legislation would total at least $2.1 trillion over the 2012–2021 period.”
Ultimately, it was messy. As messy as trash workers on strike during the summer. Messy like roadkill. Even after getting mad spending cuts, including coveted social programs that keep the poor protected, and avoiding the elimination of corporate tax breaks, Republicans still whined. Democrats, fuming, were looking for ways to slap President Obama upside the head for what they felt was capitulation on key policy priorities.
“Once it had agreed to negotiate a ransom payment, the administration was left with a series of bad options,” dryly opined The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait in an op-ed.
“How, I asked, could Obama agree to such a lopsided deal?” was an exasperated Jonathan Cohn in the same publication in an article screaming This is Not Leadership.
Obama wasn’t too thrilled either. “This process has been messy. It’s taken far too long,” said the President briefly at the White House that Sunday night. “Nevertheless, ultimately, the leaders of both parties have found their way toward compromise, and I want to thank them for that.”
The Pew Center threw in an instant survey and found 72% of Americans agreeing with the messy “messy” visuals above. “[R]idiculous, disgusting, stupid, and frustrating” was what described the debt-ceiling debacle. Only 2% thought it was positive while 11% remained neutral. Terms such as “terrible, disappointing, childish and joke” started popping up.
At the very least, it seemed like folks started paying attention. More to come.