Colloquies in venom

Congress has had great difficulty passing budget bills the last few years.  The senate has not passed a budget for several years.[1] That is mostly or completely due to profound disagreements between democrats and republicans in congress. Tea Party republicans in particular are resisting budgets that increase or maintain current spending levels. To achieve their goals, Tea Party folks seem to be generally willing to shut down some or many government operations.

If a budget bill isn’t passed in a given year, congress relies on a continuing resolution. That is legislation that extends prior fiscal year spending levels into the upcoming fiscal year. Congress resorts to this when an annual appropriations bill is delayed from becoming law on time before the end of the fiscal year. Sometimes a continuing resolution is used to delay contentious spending decisions.[2] If Congress does not pass a budget or a continuing resolution for some part of the federal government, that part usually will significantly curtail its operations or occasionally, shut down completely. There is evidence that doing this is inefficient and generally undesirable.[3] That fits with what common sense would suggest.

The heart of the disagreement appears to be focused on raising the debt ceiling. Spending bills originate in the House of Representatives.[4] That makes the House a key player in the budgeting and spending processes. Republicans in the House are insisting that spending must be linked to debt limit negotiations. President Obama has indicated that he refuses to link spending in budget bills with debt limit increases.[5] Unless something changes, the rhetoric from both sides indicate that gridlock is predictable and imminent.

Pleasant conversations

From time to time House members stand up and engage in colloquies with each other. In this context, a colloquy is a contrived conversation. These things are typically based on a previously scripted dialogue between House members, who are often the chairman of a committee and another member of the committee. The usual intent is to generate legislative history to explain what it is that a piece of legislation intended to accomplish and/or how the legislation would accomplish it’s goals.[6]

Colloquies in venom

Lately, there have been some colloquy exchanges between House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), a hard core Tea Party affiliate/member/supporter, and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), a hard core liberal. These colloquies have nothing to do with clarifying any law. These little chats are about assigning blame for why the House is doing essentially nothing and why it will probably continue to do nothing about the federal budget, the debt limit and essentially everything else. Well, everything else except maybe the things that make too many Americans angry.[7] These colloquies are pure venom. The hate between the two parties in the House is palpable.

On June 20, 2013, C-Span broadcast a 25 minute colloquy between Cantor and Hoyer about why the farm bill, student loan legislation and homeland security legislation blew up in the House.[8] The colloquy at 2:23 to 15:25 is representative of the venom. It is well worth a few minutes of time to hear exactly how the two parties see things in the House. The realities of who did what, when and why related by Cantor and Hoyer are two completely incompatible versions of reality. There is no way to reconcile the two stories. Although Cantor and Hoyer fully understand each other, the dialog is as if two black ships are passing each other silently in the night.

On  July 25, 2013, C-Span broadcast a 44 minute colloquy between Cantor and Hoyer which was, among other things, a debate over when the House would agree to meet with Senate negotiators about funding the federal government through the end of the fiscal year on September 30, 2013. The colloquy at 2:26 to 6:42, 11:49 to 13:44 and 16:26 to 17:40  is representative. Again there are black and white descriptions of reality and the lines drawn make it absolutely clear, that if these people mean what they are saying, there is literally no hope for any agreement on budgets, spending, taxes or the debt ceiling. Again, two black ships pass quietly in the night.

Who is the most broken?

In his arguments, Mr. Hoyer argues (persuasively) that Mitt Romney was not elected to be president in 2012 and that the republican party does not control the senate. He also argues that hard core conservatives in the House do not care what the president or senate republicans want. Conservative House republicans will not compromise. Instead, they are willing to find “common ground” and nothing more. That is a form of “leadership” been criticized here before.[10]

House Speaker John Boehner’s public comments in 2010 make clear that compromise with democrats is not an option.[11] Speaker Boehner’s comments on compromise are at 12:55 to 13:56 of a 2012 broadcast interview between Bill Moyers (a journalist) and Johnathan Haidt (a social scientist).[11] We are in intractable gridlock and apparently it does not matter to many or most House republicans what it is that the American people might or might not want in reality.

What Speaker Boehner claims the American people do want is not in accord with what the Reform Party of California (RPCA) understands most Americans to want.[12] As the RPCA understands majority public opinion, most Americans do want congress to do something. They do not want congress to sit bickering in endless gridlock. Doing something means compromising, but compromise is not possible. The Cantor and Hoyer colloquies and Speaker Boehner’s comments make all of that more than crystal clear.

Under the circumstances, it is reasonable to ask which party is more dysfunctional, or, are they both about equally broken or equally excellent?[13] The republicans appear to recognize one aspect of a big problem, deficits and uncontrolled spending, while the democrats accurately point out that, in essence, the republicans lost the 2012 elections and thus both more taxes and less spending are approaches the public favored by their votes because that is what the democrats campaigned on and won. Moving forward with legislation in the face of those realities will require compromise. For the republicans, compromising is the consequence of loosing the 2012 elections. They have no room for complaint, but they nonetheless reject that notion.

Dysfunction or excellence?

Others have considered the matter of political party dysfunction. Some consider the dysfunction to be harmful.[14] Some analysts, some including republicans (RINOs, no doubt), consider the republican party to be the most broken.[15] It was summed up like this: The republican party “is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”[15] If you listen to Messrs. Cantor and Boehner, that sounds about right. Actually, it could not have been put better.

To the extent that the two parties bear responsibility, one can assign about 70% (± ~10%) of the blame for dysfunction on the republican party with rest reserved for the democratic party. That is just fair and reasonable. Of course, the problem with that assessment is that it does nothing to solve the problem. Unfortunately, gridlock and the accompanying hit on GDP growth seems to be inevitable. Unless something changes in a big way, September, October and beyond in Washington are going to be very ugly unless someone, and you know who, acknowledges reality and blinks. But, that asks a lot. It asks for real leadership. Change is going to have to come from outside the two parties, especially the republican party. Most Republicans apparently will not budge from their position that revenue increases are not acceptable. At least, the democrats in congress remain willing to compromise on amounts of spending cuts and tax increases.


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6. Trying to clarify congressional intent in laws and means of accomplishing legislative goals can be important. It can partially offset the ambiguity and incoherence that is a hallmark of much (most?) legislation that comes form congress. That helps the courts figure out what it was that congress was trying to say in its poorly-written laws. Although the topic is for another commentary at another time, in RPCA opinion congress is not good at drafting clear legislation. The tax code is a great example, but it runs throughout the United States Code (USC), e.g., essentially nobody knows what the Obamacare law is or means. The USC ( is rife with unnecessary complexity and incoherent statements. Whoever drafts most legislation either needs retraining in the English language, or if the messes are intentional (which they probably are for the most part) it is mostly a result of special interests injecting poison into laws in the dead of night and behind closed doors. The point is that sloppy ambiguity almost always allows for much more freedom of operation than precise clarity will allow. Sloppy legislation probably reduces our annual GDP growth by up to about 0.1%.

7. Recall last April when the the FAA proposed closure of over one hundred flight control towers in response to decreased spending from the sequester (; The FAA also indicated that there would be flight delays, which were starting to be felt. Air traffic controllers had been experiencing furloughs for about a week. The delays were making the flying public angry. Once congress got wind of the public’s anger, they quickly became very bipartisan and passed legislation to immediately fix the problem (; This is just a garden variety example of what congress can do when the public gets irate. It is unfortunate that that kind of nonsense is what is needed to light the fire. These days, instead of doing things that are needed, most of Congress’ time is spent posturing for political gain, e.g., as shown by the C-Span videos referred to at footnotes 8 and 9.

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13. Obviously, some people who do not think we have a problem on our hands could argue that neither party is broken. The line of thought might go something like this: “Everything that is happening or not happening is constitutional and thus Congress is doing just fine. Don’t worry. Be happy.” That is not in accord with RPCA opinion or with public opinion (see footnote 12).

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