Fiscal Crisis and the Blame Game

As public pressure heightened last week on Congress to do something about sequestration,

and specifically the flight delays jamming up major airports and inconveniencing millions of people, elected officials started to feel the heat.

At least, their statements might suggest as much.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid lashed out at an early week press conference. His scorn, however, was not reserved for just the unresolved sequestration debate, but also the general inability of Congress to address long-term deficit reduction.

Reid’s primary target?

That would be the Tea Party Patriots, a group that has simultaneously captivated a vein of American voters craving for fundamental economic reform and infuriated many others hoping for compromise, and resolution, to a seemingly never-ending series of political crises.

“The last three years we’ve lurched from crisis to crisis because of the Tea Party-driven Republicans,” Reid alleged, fuming over the fact Senate Republicans had just quashed a budget conference to reconcile a bill with the House.

“The Republicans here in the Senate, are protecting the Republicans in the House,” Reid added, “who can’t move without the Tea Party jumping all over them.”

How much weight should we give to Reid’s accusation that the Tea Party shoulders the blame for a series of fiscal fiascos dating back to July of 2011?

“I think there’s some truth to what Reid is saying,” said Dr. James Cottrill, a political scientist and associate professor at Santa Clara University. “I don’t know that it’s true to put the whole blame on one group…but you’ve got a segment of the Republican Party that does not want to compromise about anything.”

Tim Morgan, a former Republican National Committee Treasurer, longtime RNC committee member and National Tea Party Patriot member, doesn’t see the hotly-debated negotiations as an issue of stubbornness versus compromise.

On the contrary, Morgan points out that the Tea Party is resolute in its drive to improve the country for the common good, regardless of short-term circumstances.

“I think the role of the Tea Party is an admirable and important role,” Morgan said. “And it’s admirable, and important, because unless the core fundamental economic issues that are primarily important to the Tea Party are addressed and tackled, we’re not going to have a country.”

We asked Morgan if forcing a U.S. default would be justified if it brought about the deep entitlement reforms and spending cuts sought by the Tea Party.

“Well, yes,” Morgan replied after a pause. “If you are very convinced that marching down the current road, even preserving the credit rating, is inexorably going to lead to a situation in which the country collapses, economically, then you have to do everything you possibly can to reign it in.”

The whatever-it-takes approach to reforming government is a style Cottrill described as imprudent.

“I think it’s a dangerous mentality,” he said. “I mean, I don’t hear many people saying, ‘Hey, let’s be Greece, in the short-term there will be pain and in the long-term it will shrink the size of government.’

I don’t think there are many Republicans who would share that belief that that’s a good thing.”

Beliefs about government, however, still fall under a larger classification of ideology.

We asked Cottrill if you can assign blame to political groups based on the clashing of philosophies.

“Whether one side is right or the other side is right, you have to realistically figure out what is the art of the possible,” the professor said.  “What is that we can do, what can we accomplish?”

In recent months and years, the answer has been, ‘not much.’

A 2011 multi-trillion dollar deal that contained both entitlement cuts and new revenues was nixed,

reportedly because House Speaker John Boehner couldn’t sell the plan to Tea Party members and the more conservative members of the party.

Failure to consummate a deficit-reduction deal in 2011 spawned the creation of ‘sequestration,’ a mechanism originally intended to force lawmakers into action but has only turned into an albatross for the government and its taxpayers.

Here, too, however, there is nuance.

As UC Berkeley political scientist and congressional budget expert Dr. John Ellwood observes, Boehner had to try and sell the debt package to his caucus- but the president never had to do the same.

“You’re looking for evidence of fault,” Ellwood said. “We know that the speaker couldn’t get it through the Republican Caucus. We don’t know whether the president could get it through the Democratic Caucus [because of proposed entitlement cuts].”

Both sides will likely return to the bargaining table in the coming months, though to what degree of success remains anyone’s guess. 

“I don’t think these people are lying on either side,” Ellwood said, referring to the fallout of failed talks.  “I just think they have very different views of what the problems are for the country.”

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