Yes, we avoided the fiscal cliff, at least for the moment. But that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. There are still a number of loose ends to tie up and all sorts of questions remaining. Heck, we’re due to fall off another fiscal cliff in just two months, when we hit the debt ceiling (to mix a metaphor).
There are a number of questions left to be answered — about process, politics and policy. Here’s a list of some of the biggest.
1. Did Boehner Ignore the “Hastert Rule?”
Only 89 Republicans voted to support the fiscal cliff deal, while 151 voted against it. Given one of the key unwritten rules of the Republican House Caucus, that shouldn’t be possible.
Republican speakers since Newt Gingrich have agreed not to bring a bill to the floor unless it has the support of the majority of Republicans. This has prevented coalitions of the type seen on Tuesday — a bloc of most Democrats joining with some of the more liberal Republicans to pass legislation.
Now, it’s possible that a majority of the caucus gave its support to bringing the bill to a vote, but were able to vote no on the bill because it was clear it was going to pass. This opens up the possibility of more coalitions of Democrats and more sensible Republicans... maybe. But that kind of teamwork might destabilize the House itself.
2. Just How Bad is GOP Fractiousness?
Consider just how bad this sequence of events has been for Republicans. From the utter failure of Plan B to Boehner allowing a vote to go through on a bill most of his caucus opposed, to Thursday, when a new Congress barely re-elected Boehner as speaker. Indeed, the fiscal cliff bill was noteworthy in that Boehner broke with his Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, who voted against the bill.
So far, Boehner has been able to hold his caucus together, but there are signs of deep division between the old guard and the younger Tea Party members. That could work to the advantage of Democrats, of course — a divided GOP may prove to make life easier on Democrats. Then again, the machinery of the house is designed to give the majority party strong advantages, and Boehner may be forced to placate his caucus by taking a hard line, and blocking legislation. That could make the next two years even more dysfunctional than the last two.
3. What About the Sequester?
The fiscal cliff deal took care of the tax issues related to the fiscal cliff, but they did nothing to take care of the sequester — the reduction in defense spending and Medicare reimbursements to doctors that Congress passed in 2011. Those were delayed 2 months to give Congress time to figure things out.
Republicans have been resolute in wanting the defense spending cuts reversed, but continue to propose draconian reductions in social safety net programs that Democrats strongly support in order to pay for it. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that the sequester was designed to be so bad that it would force Congress to act — and yet, in the end, it wasn’t.
It seems unlikely that almost two years after the sequester was first passed that Democrats and Republicans would be able to find common ground on these cuts. It seems likely that come March, we’ll be discussing once again some kind of delay in the sequester. Either that, or Fiscal Cliff II: Electric Boogaloo.
4. What About the Debt Ceiling?
Remember the debt ceiling? Sure you do. It caused chaos in markets around the world, as Republicans threatened to force default on U.S. debt unless Obama agreed to spending cuts. A deal was ultimately struck sequestering money to force Congress to deal with the issue. As we’ve seen, that worked perfectly.
The debt ceiling is a statutory limit on the amount of debt the U.S. can carry, and it’s pretty much ridiculous. The debt has already been incurred by Congressional spending; having a debt ceiling is like calling your credit card company and telling them you won’t pay your bill because you feel you owe too much money to people.
President Barack Obama has been resolute in saying he will not debate extending the debt ceiling, and that we won’t include it as part of negotiations. Republicans, meanwhile, are saying they will use the debt ceiling to extract spending concessions they didn’t get in the fiscal cliff. So clearly, we’re hitting the debt ceiling again, right?
Well, there may be a loophole or two. The 14th Amendment says that the U.S. debt “shall not be questioned.” It’s possible, if you squint at those words, to see that as meaning that the debt ceiling itself is unconstitutional. Obama could simply declare that he has no choice but to pay the debt based on the 14th Amendment, and force Congress to sue him to force America into default.
The other option is more whimsical. The Federal Reserve has the authority to mint coinage, so long as it’s not gold or silver. So you have the Fed mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin (exactly one — no sense getting silly), and deposit it in the treasury account to pay bills. Yes, this was a Simpsons episode, but it also apparently legitimate.
Whether Obama would use one of these loopholes is an open question; whether Congress will blink and raise the debt ceiling is, too.
5. Will Congress Ever Get Its Act Together?
Well, the 112th Congress never did. It adjourned early Wednesday without passing legislation to give aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy, and Republicans in the House let the Violence Against Women Act expire.
The 113th Congress took office today, but the same leaders are in charge. It’s possible Congress will get it together, but maybe not before 2015 at the earliest.