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For the third time this year, lawmakers are dragging the nation perilously close to a “fiscal cliff.” Congress must pass a budget by Oct.1 or risk a government shutdown. But political infighting and threats to strip money from the federal health care law known as “Obamacare” has both sides deadlocked. Kojo finds out what makes this budget battle more dangerous than previous ones, what the fallout could be for the public, and why policy has taken a backseat to politics on Capitol Hill.
- Andrea Seabrook Founder and Host, Decode DC; Former Congressional Correspondent, NPR
- Gordon Adams Professor of International Relations, American University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, everything you always wanted to know about great outdoors activity this fall. But first, there has been name calling, finger pointing, stubborn tantrums and story time. Just another day at preschool? Nope, this is the 113th congress at work. But this week the stakes couldn't be higher on this political playground. The country's fiscal helped thousands of federal jobs and even your health care depends on whether congress can pass a budget by Monday.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a tall order considering legislators have not agreed on a budget in nearly four years. What they can agree on is disagreement. And that's led to a standstill on Capitol Hill with Republicans threatening a government shutdown or worse, a national default unless their policy priorities are met. It's a movie we've seen before and the end is always the same. Congress kicks the can down the road until the next standoff. So how does this saga end? How real is the threat of a shutdown and why is this budget battle more dangerous than ever?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss all of this is Andrea Seabrook, founder and host of Decode DC. It's a public radio show and podcast. You know her as a longtime congressional correspondent for NPR. Andrea Seabrook, good to see you.
MS. ANDREA SEABROOKIt's so great to be here, Kojo. Thanks.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Gordon Adams. He's a professor of international relations here at American University. He's also a former senior official with the Office of Management and Budget under the Clinton Administration. Gordon Adams, thank you for joining us.
MR. GORDON ADAMSThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. What would you say to lawmakers this week as they hash out the budget, 800-433-8850? Or you can send a Tweet at kojoshow or email to email@example.com. Gordon, this fiscal crisis seems like it's becoming a ritual. Every few months we come perilously close to the cliff's edge only to be pulled back by a resolution that keeps the government running until the next crisis approaches. Is that how this week will end or are there elements of this fight that make it less predictable and maybe more dangerous this time around?
ADAMSWell, I think this is -- it is sometimes, Kojo, a little bit like Groundhog Day all over again. It's amazing the repetition of this. One almost runs out of interesting things to say because it's the same old same old every time we go through the cycle. I'm not going to say that this one is more serious than the others in part because we had that big fight in January over the debt ceiling. We're about to have another big fight over the debt ceiling.
ADAMSI would say relative to the two possibilities in the next three weeks, closing down the government is less serious than closing down the financing for the government by bringing the debt ceiling bill to a halt. So this one could go over the edge of the cliff. There's no sign that anybody's prepared to cut a deal here. My guess -- I'd be interested to know what Andrea thinks but my guess, they find a way, as you said, Kojo, to kick the can one more time, a little bit longer. Don't know if it'll be two-and-a-half months or six weeks or one week. And they'll continue the supposed conversation but right now there isn't really a conversation happening.
NNAMDIAndrea, Republicans have essentially been holding funding for the new health care law hostage this week as they negotiate the budget. As of yesterday though it looks like there's a new plan to defund or delay President Obama's health care program while keeping the government open for now. Tell us about that.
SEABROOKWell, and also just this morning I hear from Republicans in the House caucus that there was a closed door meeting of the group and that Speaker John Boehner told them they need to be flexible. That this -- you know, this situation is an evolving one. And I think they are starting to realize, if they haven't already, that there's a real risk here for Republicans. It's -- they are using the strength they have as they control one chamber of congress.
SEABROOKBut at the same time, the problem is that this bill is not a bill. It's a law. They're treating it as if it were a bill. And it is actually going to go into effect at some point soon. And once it does, the real risk for Republicans is what if people like it? Then they've kicked up this hewn cry over something they saw is going to be disastrous, which may very well not be the disaster they've been saying.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you think congress will pass a budget by Monday? Do you think congress is willing to compromise anymore, 800-433-8850, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrea, we've been hearing for a while now that the Tea Party is dead. But last week Tea Party members in the House pushed through a bill that keeps the government open only if the federal health care law is stripped of funding. And then of course there's Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, filibustering this week for 21 hours to block Democrats from restoring that funding.
NNAMDIWhat do the events of the past week tell us about the Tea Party and its effect on the Republican Party as a whole?
SEABROOKThe Tea Party is so fascinating because it's not a monolith. It's a lot of very conservative Republicans who were elected in districts that have been carefully designed to be very conservative districts. And these are the lawmakers who only have to worry about challenges from their right. So there is a force at play in those districts that pushes these lawmakers further to the right. And so what you're seeing is a kind of theater where they get up, they know they don't have the power to pass these things, they know they don't have the power to block something that's a law.
SEABROOKUltimately, the truth is the government will not collapse. The government will probably not shut down at least not for more than a couple of minutes. And the truth is they are standing up and showing that they will fight to the bitter end using the rights of the minority that are built into the House of Representatives and the Senate to show that they are over conservative. Because when they go back and run for reelection, what they're worried about is somebody coming from the right saying they didn't do enough.
NNAMDIThey're not worried about elections. They seem to be worried more about primaries.
SEABROOKExactly. And they are not worried -- this is the most significant part -- they are not worried about governance most of the time. They're not worried about the trains running on time. They're not worried about things getting done. They can ignore that stuff and just work towards the political aim of appearing to do as much as they can.
NNAMDIWell, just a quick bit of advice. There are millions of people who are poised to start signing up for health care coverage come Monday. Is there any reason to wait given all of this fiscal uncertainty?
SEABROOKNo. I don't think there's any reason for anyone -- I think Americans -- in fact -- and most of the media don't do justice to rationality by paying too much attention to these children who are having a scuffle on the playground frankly. They are using us to get the attention to spread the message that they're doing everything they can.
NNAMDIGordon, assuming congress avoids a shut down, what could a deal made at the 11th hour on Monday night look like?
ADAMSIt's going to be one of two things I think. Either two-and-a-half months worth of what they call a continuing resolution, which is funding the government basically at the level it's funded this fiscal year after the sequester has kicked in, so at a low level relative to what the president asked for. Or it will be enough chatter going on in the wings of the kind that Andrew described that the House decides to just pass a clean CR but for a week or ten days so that the noise can -- the chatter can continue.
ADAMSKojo, I don't expect any progress here. And I don't expect any progress here because Andrea's right, districts have been written in such a way now gerrymandered so that they're safe and conservative for the Tea Party part of the Republican Party. And frankly because there's now a lot of independent money that's flowing in those election districts to keep people in office and to challenge Republicans who go soft. So you don't -- I don't expect progress of substance here. I don't expect a grand bargain budget deal. Not going to happen.
ADAMSI'm not sure, but what we'll have problems when the debt ceiling comes up. And frankly I expect another sequester to kick in in January because I don't think they're going to be able to get together on a budget agreement. And everybody's kind of happy with that in an odd kind of way because sequesters gets cuts the people want without everybody having to be blaming for it. It's kind of this automatic mechanism up in the sky that makes cuts happen and nobody gets told, well you voted for it, you voted against it, you made it happen. So it's convenient. It's just not very good governance.
NNAMDIGordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University. He's a former senior official with the Office of Management and Budget under the Clinton Administration. He joins us in studio with Andrew Seabrook, founder and host of Decode DC, public radio show and podcast. Andrea Seabrook is a longtime correspondent for NPR. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Allow me to go to Gal, in Fairfax, Va. Gal, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
GALHi, Kojo and guests. I just want to state that my husband works at the Navy Yard -- or he used to work at the Navy Yard. And I just want to say that it's a slap in the face that, you know, we've gone through the sequesters. We've had no raises when President Obama first took office. And, I mean, what happened to the Navy Yard and now, you know, every time there's always a talk about the government shut down and all that, it's just a slap in the face for the people who survived the Navy Yard. And I -- you know, it's just upsetting to me.
GALWhy is it that we have to pay for it? Why can't congress pay for it? They're not doing their job. It's not really fare for us to carry them.
SEABROOKThe ultimate irony of this whole situation is that besides the caller's very good points, is that the amount of extra bureaucracy and cost that is generated by these possible shutdowns every few months exceeds what it would cost just to sign a bill that says continue to fund it at this level. I mean, the people who are causing these almost shutdowns do it in the name of cutting government.
SEABROOKBut they are actually creating more bureaucracy, more red tape and much less efficiency to the point where you even have, you know, major security organizations like the Department of Homeland Security and the Judiciary Branch saying, we can't operate in a way that is safe for Americans and that metes out justice in a way that is fair. We can't do these things when you don't give us basic budgets that we can count on.
NNAMDIGordon Adams has been through all of this before. You were a director at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton Administration, when similar budget crises resulted in government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996. What are the short and what are the long term repercussions of playing this kind of hardball as people are wondering if they'll be going to work on Tuesday?
ADAMSWell, like Andrea says, there's a question of morale here. When I was at the Office of Management and Budget in 1995 and the government shut down for quite a period actually -- we had three weeks I think at one point of shutdown -- I was unfortunately accepted personnel. I say unfortunately because I had to go in, right. But was really unfortunate about it was the 60 people who worked for me didn't, which meant what I could do was somewhat hamstrung.
ADAMSAnd as Andrea was saying, that means an incredible inefficiency. Every time we go through this it is an exercise in efficiency. It's not so much the level of funding that's at stake as the inability to think at even medium term let alone long term. You can't -- you don't know what the resources are that are coming in. You don't know when they're going to come in. You don't know what the level of funding is going to be. And that makes operating efficiently very hard.
ADAMSMeanwhile, you're sweeping up after the closure. You're sweeping up after the fight over the debt ceiling, whatever it is. It is dysfunctional and it's the congressional dysfunction that's at the heart of it.
NNAMDIHow do you compare this budget crisis with those in the 1990s?
ADAMSI actually think this is more serious. I would say the plot outline was laid by Newt Gingrich in 1995. The president clearly won that fight -- Clinton won that right in the perception of the public. The congress took the heat. Clinton took -- won the fight and Gingrich lost his speakership in the end. You know, so the fight was laid there but you still had in the congress then, in the Republican Party as well, people who were prepared to come together to make the deal to move the government ahead. We didn't have a repetitious crisis after crisis after crisis.
ADAMSWe've been through this now for two or three years, not for six months. In the end in that period of time people did manage to come together, even under Gingrich's leadership. You now have a speaker frankly, John Boehner, who does not control his caucus. So he can't deliver his people. When the time comes to say be reasonable, he can't control the 80 or 90 votes out there in his caucus that don't want to be reasonable. So I think it's much more serious and destabilizing for governance now.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll be continuing this conversation about the budget crisis on Capitol Hill. If you've called, stay on the line. If you'd like to the number's 800-433-8850. If you were hammering out the federal budget where would you make the hard cuts, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the budget crisis on Capitol Hill with Gordon Adams. He's a professor of international relations at American University, a former senior official with the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton Administration. And Andrea Seabrook. She is the founder and host of Decode DC which is a public radio show and podcast. Andrea, many of our listeners know you as a longtime voice on NPR. But you left NPR last year because you wanted to cover congress a little differently. You wanted to get past the kind of left right narrative and find out how the proverbial sausage is really made in the congress.
NNAMDISo as you roamed the halls of the capital this week, what are you hearing? Are legislators really into this showdown or are they as tired of it as the rest of us seem to be?
SEABROOKOh, they are exhausted by it. Almost everybody, and I mean from both parties, I mean from all parts of the political spectrum. They -- you know, but in a way they're so close to it that they can't -- most of them can't help but deal with just the immediate what am I doing right now? What do I have -- what do I get to vote for right now? You know, it's interesting because this fight is one of the main reasons I decided to start my own show. Because I felt like we can -- we have -- we, as the media -- I have a responsibility to stop covering it as if the choice here is shutdown or not.
SEABROOKReally the story is how did we get to a situation? How did we get here where the choice seems to be catastrophe or limping forward? This is not governance. It's not what Americans want from their government. It's not what businesses want. It's hardly what lobbyists want. I mean, there seem to be no interests at play here except for a very small minority. And I believe in the rights of the minority in the House and the Senate. It's enshrined in our constitution. But there's something wrong when no one has the power to make things work.
NNAMDIAnd the reporting of what he says on the right or what she says on the left doesn't appropriately cover that situation. Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland presented a plan this week to hammer out a new omnibus appropriations bill. How likely is something like this, considering the fact that congress has failed to pass any appropriations bills this year? And the Senate and the House have not agreed to a budget resolution since, well, 2009?
SEABROOKThe irony is that something like an omnibus is probably the only thing that could work. You know, for those who don't know, an omnibus is sort of a giant package of spending -- Gordon knows all of this better than I do -- but in terms of the politically, it rolls everything together. And when you do that in the House of Representatives -- in the Senate you can put all these secret sweeteners in. You know, you get this guy to vote by adding this little provision that he wants. And it's not pork barrel spending. It's not earmarks necessarily.
SEABROOKBut say, you know, this guy who normally would vote against anything that comes up, he might really need this extra, you know, the funding program for a road in a district, you know, near him. And so when that gets into the transportation part of this giant bill, then he will actually vote for it. So that's the irony that something that's as sloppy as an omnibus could actually work.
ADAMSThe appropriators are key here, Kojo. And I think what's really interesting in the current atmosphere is the recovery of the appropriators. When Barbara Mikulski, who is my senator among other things, became chair of the Appropriations Committee in the Senate, she screwed up the action enormously in the Appropriations Committee. And she is now, unlike her predecessor and unlike the House, put herself in the middle of the action, saying I've got the instrument. I'm the appropriator. I mean, Andrew knows this -- in the congress appropriators are the kings and queens. They really run the action.
ADAMSBudgets and numbers and money, that's what they do and that's what everybody wants. She has now put herself in the position of being, if you will, a queen pin of negotiating the deal, whatever the deal is going to be, which was not true before. The appropriators were kind of pushed to the side in the political argument. Their role is coming back, especially with Barbara Mikulski saying, I've got the instrument that allows you to finish off sequester, that allows you to put the budget pieces together. She's thinking big. And I think that's a real positive development.
NNAMDIBill in Burke, Va. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLGood morning, Kojo and guests.
BILLFirstly a comment. I think the Tea Party could best be described as the aftermath of a drunken Saturday night frat party. And for a suggestion, if these people really want to stop spending money, let them stand up and have all appropriations for things going to their district be zeroed.
SEABROOKSome have done that actually.
ADAMSIt's an interesting thought.
NNAMDIHow would that idea work, Gordon?
SEABROOKActually Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona has done that and has done it for years. He was in the House of Representatives before...
ADAMSBut it's rare.
SEABROOKBut it's very rare.
ADAMSTo be fair it's rare because the -- you know, even a member of the Tea Party is somewhat bifurcated in his or her loyalties. They have an ideological mission at the top that elected them. But, you know, the odd thing about the federal government is it spends all kinds of money in all kinds of parts of the American geography. And that money becomes important if you're the firefighter that needs equipment or the cop that needs equipment. And there's a Department of Homeland Security grants program that provides it for you.
ADAMSIf you've got low income neighborhoods where checks are going out to people, where you've got educational support for schools, you've got all kinds of things that the federal government's actually putting into the district that people have wanted there. And that's a contradiction that they'll find themselves in when they get to appropriations time. When the ideology overwhelms their perspective, they find they don't get what they want in the appropriations bill. And that's not politically good for them two years out.
SEABROOKYeah, so it's a -- it actually draws them together. It's the one thing that despite all of the political divide right now can draw people together from across the political spectrum and actually force something through that could work.
ADAMSWhich is what I think gets the appropriators back into the middle of the action on this issue.
NNAMDIHere now is Dan in Haymarket, Va. Dan, your turn.
DANHi. Yes. I endorse all the comments about how disruptive and damaging it is to run up to a shutdown like this. I've been a worker in government and I can -- I've seen it happen. My question -- and I hope it's not too far off the mark, is the part right now is Obamacare. And my question's what's the difference between Obamacare and Romneycare and whatever the Heritage Foundation came up with? I think they're essentially the same. In fact, I've found some conservative blog -- not a blog but outlet that said there's a significant difference between Romneycare and Obamacare. It's all about the origins and the intent. That doesn't...
NNAMDIThere has been much discussion of the original Heritage Foundation idea that both Romney and the Affordable Care Act have seemed to have drawn heavily off of. Please go ahead, Andrea.
SEABROOKYes, yes. They -- here's the most important thing I think. And that is Obamacare is now the law. You know, the other things are, you know, ideas. And in the full robust political debate we had over two years, a lot of different things were thrown around. The law originated in a sort of public private partnership between government regulation and private health insurance companies. But all of that is kind of moot at this point. It goes into -- it has gone into effect several years ago. The reason why 26 year-olds can stay on their parent's health insurance, why you can't get kicked off for pre-existing conditions. Those things have already gone into effect.
SEABROOKThe next phase of it goes in effect in just a week. And the question I think is really the most important question is, what is -- how is it responsible to govern when you're still acting as if the regulations that are in place and that an entire governance structure is in place to make happen, is it responsible governance to treat that as if it were still a bill, an idea, something abstract?
ADAMSJohn McCain has basically said this. He said, you know, we fought that fight. We lost that fight. We lost the election. This issue is over. Let's move on, which is why I don't think the issues about Obamacare -- in fact, a fair amount of the health care system of America is on the entitlement side or it's about regulations. It's not about the money at all. You can't really defund Obamacare. You can stop funding for pieces of it, but you can't defund Obamacare in any way. Which leads me to think that a lot of this, frankly, is about getting the president, that this is about a long term fight to get Obama and not to let Obama succeed at anything that he's tried to do.
ADAMSAnd I don't hold a special torch for Obama. There's all kinds of things I'll be critical about, but this strikes me as there's a subtext here that says anything this guy does, we're going to fight. And that really concerns me.
SEABROOKI actually think they're trying to -- I wouldn't put it so much as get Obama as in the view of history have come down right at the beginning of this law in the right place. So they're making the bet that ten years from now Americans will hate Obamacare. And they will have been against it from the beginning. And I think there's a risk there because of what if people like it?
NNAMDIGordon, none of us thought that sequestration would happen but now we are almost to its one-year anniversary. There were some pretty dire predictions about how the sequesters across the board cuts would impact the Department of Defense and our security. Have they proven to be true?
ADAMSNo. And what's really interesting about that is that most of the things that the Department of Defense said last year when Leon Panetta was calling it doomsday or when the chiefs were saying readiness would be in the tank or we'd have a second rate force, you know, that the Truman couldn't deploy to the Gulf. There were all kinds of terrible things that were going to happen.
ADAMSThe reality here on the defense side is that the Defense Department, even though sequester's not fun to manage, has more flexibility to manage it than almost any other federal department within the accounts that get affected by sequester. They have a lot of freedom to move money around and they have done that. Good management in a sense. If your budget's coming down, manage it smartly. They've managed it smartly.
ADAMSThe downside for the department of course is having shown they can manage it. People are now saying on the Hill, well, hey, you said this was going to be terrible. It turned out to be completely workable. Why should we give you more money?
NNAMDIWell, you published an article recently in Foreign Policy that essentially said, like it or not we're in a defense drawdown. And it's time for the Pentagon to cope and adjust.
ADAMSIt's absolutely right. Whether sequester is a kind of a deus ex machina, a god from the sky that comes down and makes things happen that you didn't choose to do and you don't want to be responsible for, but the reality is the vector is the same. Sequester may speed it up but defense budgets are going down and it's really time for the Pentagon to get over the first stages of grief and get to the acceptance.
NNAMDIAlmost out of time. Andrea, all eyes will be on House Speaker John Boehner as the week wraps up. Is he stuck between the proverbial rock and that other hard place?
SEABROOKOh, yeah. John Boehner -- you know, I would not want his job. I don't know anyone in Washington really who wants his job -- maybe Eric Cantor. But this -- you know, he's in a terrible place. And I think the take-home message from all of this, as Gordon was saying, is that there will be a lot of hemming and hawing and screaming about budgets, about this not working, about that not working. In the end, we will be fine. And, you know, expect governance. Maybe we'll get it.
NNAMDIAndrea Seabrook, founder and host of Decode DC, a public radio show and podcast. Andrea, thank you for joining us.
SEABROOKIt's my pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIGordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University, former senior official with the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton Administration. Gordon Adams, thank you for joining us.
ADAMSI appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, everything you want to know about the outdoors for this fall season. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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