For the past several years the winter months in Washington have been consumed in political showdowns over the federal budget. Increasingly this intricate, mostly Republican, kabuki dance includes extreme, crank political positions and posturing, and continues right up to the deadline, after which the government must start sending home employees and stopping the payment of unemployment, Social Security, Medicare and other subsidies transfer payments. In recent years, no budget has been passed - only a continuing resolution to keep the government functioning.
In the 1990s, then House Speaker, and Republican "revolutionary," Newt Gingrich took the dance over the cliff and shut the government down. At which point Bill Clinton famously advised him, "I don't think that dog will hunt," and triangulated Gingrich's career out of existence.
So it's not all kabuki. It's true some Republicans recall history and fear the same political result, but too many, including the teabagger faction, appear to have a death wish - not just for themselves but for us all. Like some noted fascist and anti-democratic forces of the past 200 years, their program is one of nullification and chaos.
The sequester was the evil product of last year's dance, though the actual government shutdown only lasted 40 minutes. Its arbitrary impact on all government services without any regard to need or urgency will weigh heavily on upcoming negotiations.
Several features of the upcoming debate, however, promise this year's kabuki may give up all pretense of dance. The blogosphere that focuses on budget matters is peppered with the following alarms:
1. The president has said "No more" to further blackmail from the Republicans over the debt ceiling. Nonetheless lifting the debt ceiling will have to be reauthorized again this year, or the threat of default will return, possibly lowering the rating of U.S. Treasury securities - thus dramatically raising borrowing costs, and indeed, the deficit.
2. Pressures from the sequester on many programs including emergency response funds adds an additional burden and dimension to the negotiations that did not exist last year.
3. The House, through its Republican control of the Appropriations Committee, is refusing to fund features of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), while going kabuki-crazy voting 40 times now to repeal it.
4. The House and Senate Republicans are not at all united this year. That's a good thing in the long run, in this writer's view, but in the short run it begs the question of who in Congress can bargain over the budget or a continuing resolution on behalf of the Republicans. Washington is rife with talk that John Boehner is much weaker as Speaker of the House this year, and has lost control of the teabagger faction.
Given these factors, there is unlikely to be any serious attempt at a "grand bargain" on budget and taxes this coming year. More and more, it's looking like the American people will be given a choice of outright chaos or a constitutional crisis as the president, in defense against chaos and emergency, will be tempted to exercise much greater executive power.
All of a sudden we can be cast from one social and political universe into a very different one. Not all change is incremental and slow. The nullification and chaos forces must be defeated. To do that, democratic forces will be compelled to hit both the ballot boxes and the streets to make their will known. The 2014 elections will be a new test of whether this nation will have a new birth of freedom - or whether government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall perish from the earth.
Photo: "The debt ceiling negotiations in Washington have been a dispiriting example of how a determined, organized minority can hijack the democratic process to blackmail the majority into accepting a disastrous, foolhardy and unpopular agenda. If this is how we're trying to sell democracy by example to the rest of the world, we're doing a terrible job. Meanwhile, far from Washington, out here in the real world, lots of alternatives have been suggested. But nobody seems to be listening." Wisconsin, 2011. Peter Patau CC 2.0