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Will Congress learn lessons from shutdown?

Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

Lawmakers’ frustratingly idiotic shutdown of the government and near catastrophe of defaulting on the federal debt cost the U.S. around $24 billion in lost economic activity. Citizens lost work and income. Businesses lost revenue. Family vacations were ruined when national monuments and parks closed. Interest payments on short-term debts rose. Veterans’ families saw their death benefits stalled. Needy families were told no more vouchers for milk for your babies.

Given all that, it sounds like insanity writ large to hear proponents continue to defend their outrageous tactics with righteous fervor as a way to, in House Speaker John Boehner’s words, “stop the train wreck that is the president’s health care law.”

Even those who believe the Affordable Care Act will be a financial calamity – though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and many economists say the opposite is true – can’t possibly think that pushing the country into financial disaster to save it from potential financial disaster makes anything resembling good sense or logic? Can they?

Well, the final vote to unshutter government and to pay the country’s debts unfortunately showed too many still do. The vote in the Senate was 81 votes for legislation to end the 16-day government shutdown and extend federal borrowing power to pay government debts already incurred, 18 against and one senator not voting.

Among the dissenters were tea party leader Ted Cruz, who almost single-handedly whipped up the frenzy that nearly led to a U.S. debt default that world leaders publicly worried would have global negative repercussions, and two other Republican senators with presidential aspirations, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Both North Carolina senators, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan, voted for the agreement.

In the House, the vote was 285 for and 144 against, with all Democrats voting for the measure and 87 Republicans joining them. All 144 voting against the agreement were Republicans. In North Carolina, the yeas came from Reps. G.K. Butterfield (1st Dist.), David Price (4th Dist.), Howard Coble (6th Dist.), Mike McIntyre (7th Dist.), Robert Pittenger (9th Dist.), Patrick McHenry (10th Dist.) and Mel Watt (12th Dist.). The nays came from Reps. Renee Ellmers (2nd Dist.), Walter Jones (3rd Dist.), Virginia Foxx (5th Dist.), Richard Hudson (8th Dist.), Mark Meadows (11th Dist.) and George Holding (13th Dist.).

These dissenters unfortunately underscore the fact that this agreement is likely just a brief respite from the irrational brinkmanship that keeps taking money out of taxpayers’ pockets and flirting with global financial catastrophe. As one lawmaker lamented, GOP extremists are not just willing to take hostages to have their demands met. They’re willing to kill them too. It will be difficult to have productive conference committees with people that stridently intransigent.

But the agreement worked out Wednesday calls for such a committee to try to reach compromise and consensus in budget talks. There’s a Dec. 13 deadline for issuing a plan for federal funding levels and the next debt ceiling increase. The agreement Wednesday extended government spending through Jan. 15 and the debt ceiling through Feb. 7.

Some North Carolina lawmakers have been lamentably part of the problem, not the solution, on this matter. House member Ellmers got it right initially when she said voting for a government shutdown would be trading one economic disaster for another. But when the conservative Heritage Action group said it would spend thousands on ads against her and other opponents she changed course, got in line with tea party activists and voted against the deal to reopen government and extend borrowing power.

In the Senate, Burr too met conservative opposition when he first expressed doubts about shutting down the government. In July, he was quoted as saying that shutting down the government if President Obama didn’t agree to defunding Obamacare was the “dumbest idea” he'd ever heard of. Conservative activists immediately began lambasting him and by the fall Burr had changed his public tune. Last week, he was prominently mentioned in a front page New York Times story where conservatives downplayed the impact of the shutdown and a debt default on the economy. Burr intimated that failing to raise the debt limit wouldn't be so bad because the money saved by shutting down the government and furloughing federal workers could be applied to paying those obligations.

Burr was also quoted in a Politico story saying that “I am not as concerned as the president is on the debt ceiling, because the only people buying our bonds right now is the Federal Reserve. So it’s like scaring ourselves.” In truth, almost half the nation’s outstanding public debt is held by foreign governments who expressed misgivings about a possible U.S. debt default.

In Wednesday’s vote, Burr came back from the brink and voted for reopening the government and avoiding default.

Among those firmly in the nay category was Richard Hudson. The N.C. congressman offered the explanation that came from others – that the deal would “irresponsibly raise the debt ceiling” without containing “spending cuts.”

Walter Jones, who voted against the measure to avert default, gave this intriguing reason: “Borrowing another roughly $230 billion from the Chinese and other foreign governments – only to funnel much of it back overseas to the war in Afghanistan and other foreign aid projects – is the wrong choice for our country.” Is Jones against borrowing the money from the Chinese or using it to pay for wars or both? And is either pertinent to the fact that the U.S. has incurred debts that it is legally obligated to pay and should, or to shutting down the government and causing financial harm to millions of Americans?

Not all GOP lawmakers were doing an imitation of the Three Stooges, several dozen times over. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the House Appropriations Committee chair and a veteran lawmaker, said Thursday what many Americans have been saying over the last few weeks: “It's time to take the threat of default off the table. It's time to restore some sanity to this place. To do this, we all have to give a little.” When the next round of negotiations comes in three months, we can only hope that Congress has learned a lesson and will follow that advice.

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