When one side flouts civil norms

Yesterday, White House press spokesman Jay Carney kiboshed the idea of minting a platinum trillion dollar coin to get around the Congressionally imposed debt ceiling that Republicans are using to ransom deep cuts in medicare and social security.

Some economists have urged President Barack Obama to exploit a legal loophole that would allow the government to print a single $1,000,000,000,000 coin, and deposit it with the Federal Reserve Bank, thereby enabling the US Government to pay bills Congress has already authorized.

MSNBC Host Chris Hays summed up the case for the coin this way:

If this seems surreal or ridiculous or magical to you, you are not wrong. It’s totally bizarre and unprecedented. Even if it’s legal, as many legal experts believe it to be, it seems to run against our expectations of how our government does and should behave. It’s the kind of thing that just isn’t done. But that, you see, is the entire point. Behaviour of individuals within institutions is constrained by the formal rules–explicit prohibitions–and norms–implicit prohibitions that aren’t spelled out, but just aren’t done.

Chris-HayesAnd what the modern Republican party has excelled at, particularly in the era of Obama, is exploiting the gap between these two. They’ve made a habit of doing the thing that just isn’t done. Requiring a 60-vote majority for nearly every simple procedural vote just wasn’t done, and then the Republicans did it. Refusing to confirm any candidate for an open position because you object to the position’s very existence just wasn’t done, but Senate Republicans did precisely that with the newly created Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which they continue to boycott. And most clearly before the summer of June, 2011, opposition parties didn’t use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip with which to extract ransom, and they certainly didn’t threaten default as a means to gain political leverage.

The president has been extremely reticent to meet this extraordinary degradation of previous norms with innovations of his own. He is, at heart, an ardent institiuionalist. But there is no way to unilaterally maintain norms. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. And the only way to produce a new set of healthy norms is to do some innovating of your own.

And you can tell, I think, the trillion dollar coin idea spooks republicans precisely because it would be so out of character. It would so gleefully and flagrantly violate their own expectations about how democrats play the game.

I go back and forth on whether Obama is a leader of exceptional forbearance, or a patsy who can’t play hardball. In this case, I’m dismayed that the President has once again abjured what may be his strongest weapon on the eve of negotiations that promise to be not just difficult but fraught with potential harm to the United States and the world.

Since Contrarian readers may not have followed this looming crisis all that closely, I will follow the advice of James Fallows and include these two sentences in this discussion:

  1. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize one single penny in additional public spending.
  2. For Congress to “decide whether” to raise the debt ceiling, for programs and tax rates it has already voted into law, makes exactly as much sense as it would for a family to “decide whether” to pay a credit-card bill for goods it has already bought.

For those who prefer to ingest their economic news visually, here is Hayes’s entire commentary on the Republican Debt ceiling fiasco (the coin discussion starts 25 seconds in):

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And here is the bipartisan panel discussion that followed.

At first blush, this is a discussion about the intricacies of US politics. But in Canada, over the last two years, the Harper Government has been flouting Parliamentary norms in a manner that is, so far as I know, unprecedented in scope. Harper has cobbled together massive omnibus bills that change dozens of important federal laws touching wide-ranging spheres of Canadian affairs–ranging from National Parks to native rights to protection of waterways. Harper has used his parliamentary majority to force these laws through with a minimum of debate.

Just as Republicans can say Democrats used the filibuster too, Harperites can say Liberals used Omnibus bills, too. Yes they did, and sometimes in regrettable ways, but never on this massive scale.

What we’ve seen from Harper in the last two years is a flouting of norms, and as Hayes says, once norms are gone, they’re gone, and you can’t get ’em back. Once Canada’s dalliance with the radical right ends, as inevitably it one day will, the most important task facing a moderate or progressive alternative will be to repair the damage Harper has done to Canadian Parliamentary Democracy.

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