Washington’s warring brothers

October 1, 2013

This month's battles over the budget and the Tea Party Republicans' fanaticism about the health care law obscure the two parties' common commitment to austerity.

THE FEDERAL government officially went into shutdown mode at midnight on October 1--in another spectacular display of dysfunction in the highest offices of the "world's greatest democracy."

Some 800,000 "non-essential" workers will be furloughed, and critical services, from food stamps to food safety inspections and much more, face disruptions--all because the maniacs who call the shots in the Republicans Party decided to keep fighting a legislative battle they lost more than three years ago when Barack Obama's health care legislation passed Congress and was signed into law.

No one knows how long the government will be out of business. House Republicans will get most of the blame for the shutdown--a CNN/ORC International poll found that seven in 10 people (meaning a significant section of the GOP's own base agrees) thought they were acting more like "spoiled children" than "responsible adults."

The best guess right now is that the GOP will eventually retreat and pass legislation to fund the government that doesn't try to completely gut the health care law--though given the Democrats' own record of caving, the Republicans might still win some concessions that they can call a victory.

A joint session of Congress listens to President Barack Obama

But the budget battles will continue through October, with an even more dangerous brink coming in the middle of the month--when Congress must raise the debt ceiling, or the federal government will go into default, with unknown dire consequences for the world financial system.

In the coming days, the media will fill the airwaves with the speeches of Republicans and Democrats trying to push the blame on each other. But this focus on today's battles--where it seems like the two parties are unalterably opposed to each other--obscures how far to the right both have traveled together over the years.

So it will be all the more important for those who want an alternative to the status quo in Washington to remind themselves and others of a hidden-in-plain-sight truth about American politics--that the Democrats and Republicans agree about much more than they disagree.

They agree on imposing sweeping cuts in most government programs, though not the Pentagon; they differ on how deep the cuts should be. They agree on a health care system where the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance complex calls the shots; they differ about parts of a law designed to preserve the industry's profits and power. They agree on a system where Corporate America piles up record profits by driving down the living standards of working-class people; they disagree only on the details of how that system should operate.

THE FEDERAL government hasn't actually come to the point of a shutdown in close to two decades--the last one came in 1996 during Bill Clinton's presidency. The threatened default of the federal government if the debt ceiling isn't raised has never happened--the consequences would be so catastrophic that it's hard to imagine even the Republicans letting it happen, though most seem willing to let the government shut its doors.

But as rare as actual government shutdowns have been, the partisan brinksmanship and grandstanding in Washington feel tiresomely familiar.

In three of the last four biannual national elections for Congress and/or the White House since 2006, the Republicans suffered humiliating defeats that left some analysts speculating about whether they could ever win another national election. Yet the Republicans have been on the offensive for most of this time.

The pattern has been for Republicans to demand savage cuts and right-wing social policies, and for Democrats to offer to meet them halfway. The Republicans then insist they'll never compromise--and the Democrats offer to meet them two-thirds of the way. Fast forward to the end, and the outcome is rarely very far from what Republicans wanted in the first place.

Actually, the Democrats sometimes don't offer to meet the Republicans halfway--because in the era of neoliberalism and austerity, they've already started out there.

Knowing that is important in understanding the Washington debate about Obama's health care law: the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The Republican attempt to gut the ACA is in keeping with its attitude of all-out opposition to any health care legislation. There are political reasons for this--it would be a huge boon to their rivals if the Democrats were associated in most people's minds with a popular reform of the health care system, even if it wasn't much of a reform, nor all that popular.

Beyond this, though, the Republican hatred for "Obamacare" does reflect Corporate America's aggressive posture in the era of neoliberalism. This face of the ruling class offensive is best characterized as "smash and grab"--take as much as possible from the working class, as quickly as possible, and never concede on anything.

But from the start of the Obama presidency, Corporate America--and the health care industry in particular--has simultaneously pursued another strategy: working with Democrats to shape health care "reform" into legislation that serves its interests.

Thus, the ACA is a Frankenstein's monster of a law that combines a few positive provisions, such as expansion of the Medicaid system and long-overdue regulations on the insurance industry's worst practices, with a lot of really bad ones--above all, the individual "mandate" requiring those without insurance to buy the defective products of private insurers.

Ultimately, the long-term aim of the health care law isn't to provide affordable and universal coverage, but to carry through a rationalization of the health care industry--and, crucially, a ratcheting down of ordinary people's expectations of what medical coverage they can expect for still exorbitant prices.

Drs. David Himmelstein and Stephanie Woolhandler, cofounders of Physicians for a National Health Program and long-time advocates of a government-run "single payer" health care system, point out that the plans that will be available through the state "insurance exchanges" set up under the ACA will have lower-than-expected costs--but only because they sharply restrict choice of doctors and medical facilities, and include prohibitively high deductibles and co-pays.

Plus, there's "nasty news for those who aren't forever young," say Himmelstein and Woolhandler--premium costs for a Silver plan in New Jersey, for example, are $3,030 for a 27-year-old, but $8,535 for a 63-year-old.

That's a far, far cry from what many people hoped for when Barack Obama began his presidency promising to fix the health care system. Yet many liberals are defending "Obamacare" against the Republican attack. One of the most corrosive effects of the Washington budget battles is that policies which should be unacceptable to progressives become points of principle to defend when the Democrats mount the ramparts against the "Tea Party extremists."

OF COURSE, it's no surprise that people who do want to see health care reform or government programs saved from the budget ax would have a deep hatred for the Republicans. The fanaticism of the Tea Party faction of the Republicans has been shocking, even knowing their vile record.

For example, when Texas Rep. John Culberson wanted to encourage his colleagues to reject any compromise with the Senate, "I said, like 9/11, 'Let's roll!'"--a reference to the phrase used by passengers on one of the hijacked airliners during the September 11 attacks.

If that not-so-veiled comparison of Senate Democrats to terrorists was too subtle, Culberson summoned an image from the Civil War to explain why he didn't care what the Senate thought: "Ulysses S. Grant used to say, 'Boys, quit worrying about what Bobby Lee is doing. I want to know what we are doing.' And that's what the House is doing today, thank God."

The shutdown circus has made it abundantly clear that Tea Partiers like Culberson are driving the agenda of the main party of big business--even though big business has kept its distance from the House hard-liners, and is downright hostile toward the Republicans' game of chicken with the debt-ceiling debate.

Mainstream Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner--yes, it's hard to believe, but he is mainstream--are at the mercy of the Tea Party kooks. In fact, conservatives boast that Boehner has been bypassed as leader of the House Republicans--by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who they say has been setting the strategy for the GOP, in consultation with House Tea Partiers.

All this may please the Republicans' hard-right base, but it does them no favors with anyone else, including Corporate America.

This has been a problem for the Republicans for some time, and they show no sign of shifting now.

The party's wired-into-Wall-Street establishment has always needed a way to mobilize the GOP base--the Christian Right around social issues in the past, the Tea Party today--to win elections and sway the mainstream political debate. But lately, these forces have been slipping the leash and threatening to punish any Republican found guilty of wanting to compromise.

So short-term interests in the factional battles within the Republican Party trump any attempts by the "moderates" to maintain the legitimacy of the GOP as a responsible capitalist party.

WITH THE Republicans pandering to their own base and alienating everyone else, it's hard to see why the Democrats would ever agree to any compromises. But in the warped world of Washington, the "party of the people" always seems willing to "give up something" to get a few dozen Republicans to vote with them.

In this case, Obama isn't about to abandon what he considers the signal achievement of his presidency--the Affordable Care Act. But he and his party might be willing to bargain away a piece of it--such as the tax on medical devices that has had the medical device industry (surprise, surprise) up in arms since 2010.

Beyond that is something obscured beneath the battles over gutting the health care law--that the budget wars in Congress are locking in drastic spending cuts, which are wreaking havoc on government programs that working people depend on. The 2013 budget "sequester" and a $1 trillion in domestic spending cuts over the coming decade are becoming the "new normal."

The Washington Post's Neil Irwin distilled the true essence of the debate over the ACA and funding the government:

What [Obama] is signaling he won't do is engage in a negotiation where the other side has a combination of utterly unrealistic expectations (undoing the president's greatest legislative victory, less than a year after he won re-election) and a threat to risk global financial chaos to get it (by allowing a default).

Think of it as a negotiation in a different context, over selling a house. Obama has a house for sale, and his asking price is $300,000. He is facing an opponent (the hard-line wing of the House Republican party) who is offering $1,000 and threatening to blow up the house if there is no deal.

Obama isn't saying he won't negotiate. He's saying he'll only negotiate once the offering price is something plausible, say $200,000, and the threat to blow up the house is off the table.

This month's battles over the budget are obscuring the reality that Washington's commitment to austerity politics is thoroughly bipartisan. It's easy for Democrats to blame the Tea Party for the government shutdown. It's harder for them to face the truth that the Tea Party has leverage because Obama has accepted the need to "get the deficit under control," mainly by cutting government spending to the bone, rather than raising taxes on the rich.

The mainstream media's simplistic analysis--Democrats vs. Republicans, Tea Party conservatives vs. the GOP establishment--camouflage what's really taking place: a bipartisan drive for austerity where both parties ignore what the public wants.

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