They Bravely Chickened Out
Earlier this week Congress tried to show that it is capable of tackling our chronic and dangerous debt problems. Despite the great fanfare I believe they have accomplished almost nothing. Supporters say that the budget truce created by Republican Representative Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray will provide the economy with badly needed certainty. But I think the only surety this feeble and fictitious deal offers is that Washington will never make any real moves to change the trajectory of our finances, and that future solutions will be forced on us by calamity rather than agreement.
There can be little doubt that the deal resulted from a decision by Republicans, who may be still traumatized by the public relations drubbing they took with the government shutdown, to make the 2014 and 2016 elections a simple referendum on Obamacare. Given the ongoing failures of the President's signature health care plan, and the likelihood that new problems and outrages will come to light in the near future, the Republicans have decided to clear the field of any obstacles that could distract voters from their anger with Obama and his defenders in Congress. The GOP smells a political winner and all other issues can wait. It is no accident the Republican press conference on the budget deal was dominated by prepared remarks focusing on the ills of Obamacare.
Although he had crafted his reputation as a hard nosed deficit hawk, Paul Ryan claimed that the agreement advances core Republican principles of deficit reduction and tax containment. While technically true, the claim is substantively hollow. In my opinion the more honest Republicans are arguing that the Party is simply making a tactical retreat in order to make a major charge in the years ahead. They argue that Republicans will need majorities in both houses in 2014, and the White House in 2016, in order to pass meaningful reforms in taxing and spending. This has convinced them to prioritize short term politics over long term goals. I believe that this strategy is wishful thinking at best. It magnifies both the GOP's electoral prospects (especially after alienating the energetic wing of their party) and their willingness to make politically difficult decisions if they were to gain majority power (recent Bush Administration history should provide ample evidence of the party's true colors). Their strategy suggests that Republicans (just like the Democrats) have just two priorities: hold onto their own jobs, and to make their own party a majority so as to increase their currency among lobbyists and donors. This is politics at its most meaningless. I believe public approval ratings for Congress have fallen to single digit levels not because of the heightened partisanship, but because of blatant cowardice and dishonesty. Their dereliction of responsibility will not translate to respect or popularity. Real fiscal conservatives should continue to focus on the dangers that we continue to face and look to constructive solutions. Honesty, consistency and courage are the only real options.
In the meantime we are given yet another opportunity to bask in Washington's naked cynicism. Congress proposes cuts in the future while eliminating cuts in the present that it promised to make in the past! The Congressional Budget Office (which many believe is too optimistic) projects that over the next 10 years the Federal government will create $6.38 trillion in new publicly held debt (intra-governmental debt is excluded from the projections). This week's deal is projected to trim just $22 billion over that time frame, or just 3 tenths of 1 percent of this growth. This rounding error is not even as good as that. The $22 billion in savings comes from replacing $63 billion in automatic "sequestration" cuts that were slated to occur over the next two years, with $85 billion in cuts spread over 10 years. As we have seen on countless occasions, long term policies rarely occur as planned, since future legislators consistently prioritize their own political needs over the promises made by predecessors.
The lack of new taxes, which is the deal's other apparent virtue, is merely a semantic achievement. The bill includes billions of dollars in new Federal airline passenger "user fees" (the exact difference between a "fee" and a "tax" may be just as hard to define as the difference between Obamacare "taxes" and a "penalties" that required a Supreme Court case to decide). But just like a tax, these fees will take more money directly from consumer's wallets. The bigger issue is the trillions that the government will likely take indirectly through debt and inflation.
The good news for Washington watchers is that this deal could finally bring to an end the redundant "can-kicking" exercises that have frustrated the Beltway over the last few years. Going forward all the major players have agreed to pretend that the can just doesn't exist. In making this leap they are similar to Wall Street investors who ignore the economy's obvious dependence on the Federal Reserve's Quantitative Easing program as well as the dangers that will result from any draw down of the Fed's $4 trillion balance sheet.
The recent slew of employment and GDP reports have convinced the vast majority of market watchers that the Fed will begin tapering its $85 billion per month bond purchases either later this month or possibly by March of 2014. Many also expect that the program will be fully wound down by the end of next year. However, that has not caused any widespread concerns that the current record prices of U.S. markets are in danger. Additionally, given the Fed's current centrality in the market for both Treasury and Mortgage bonds, I believe the market has failed to adequately allow for severe spikes in interest rates if the Fed were to reduce its purchasing activities. With little fanfare yields on the 10 year and 30 year Treasury bonds are already approaching multi-year highs. Few are sparing thoughts for yield spikes that could result if the Fed were to slow, or stop, its buying binge.
So America blissfully sails on, ignoring the obvious fiscal, monetary, and financial shoals that lay ahead in plain sight. I believe that will continue this dangerous course until powers outside the United States finally force the issue by refusing to expand their holding of U.S. debt. That will finally bring on the debt and currency crisis that we have created by our current cowardice.
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