Cliff Hanger: Fiscal Fight Makes for Lousy Politics But Killer TV

Confessions of a C-SPAN Addict

U.S. President Obama meets with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders - DC

For three consecutive days last week, I woke up before 9 a.m. without the use of an alarm. This has never happened before. It’s not because I’m bright-eyed and looking to seize a brand-new day’s worth of opportunities, but because I’m an addict. A filthy, filthy blood-eyed, rot-tooth addict, and the new shipment just came in. CSPAN’s coverage of Congress comically attempting to do something important begins at the crack of dawn, and I hate to miss even a second of it. 
That’s right, our completely broken federal government has begun its latest round of fiscal negotiations in search of a big deal, before some apocalyptic fate entirely of the politicians’ own creation kicks in.

There’s nothing I can do to turn away, reveling in all of the fake twists and posturing and lying and shifts in leverage. It gets more embarrassing for the country each time, and so I get more immersed in it. Grimy, cynical, awful budget negotiation crack—it is military-grade nerd meth, watching this horror show play out.

The “fiscal cliff” negotiations represent the fourth such circus in the past two years. The two parties take it upon themselves to resolve a bundle of major budgetary issues against the backdrop of a ticking clock that, were it to hit zero, would release an army of 10 million demons into the night. Only under such a threat, the theory goes, can these two parties with completely different ideologies but a shared strategic philosophy of “fuck over the other’s base” come together to pass whatever biggies are coming up on the calendar.

It started with the tax negotiations in the 2010 lame-duck session, under threat of full expiration of the Bush tax cuts. The parties finally agreed, in the last days of the session, to delay all major tax decisions another two years. In April 2011, after Republicans took control of the House, it was about funding the government for six months and maybe cutting some spending in the process, or endure a government shutdown. Ten minutes before their deadline, they decided to keep spending pretty much the same for the next six months.

The next month’s debate was about raising the debt ceiling. You remember that one, right? It was that funny one where the House Republicans threatened to arbitrarily destroy the global economy forever if they didn’t get a constitutional amendment to ban the Democratic party’s policies, basically. That stupid plot by stupid people who hadn’t yet read their federal policymaker Cliffs Notes led to more last-minute flailing can-kicking. And now here we are, trying to resolve all of this accumulated, punted crap at once before a bunch of recessions and Mayan apocalypses ruin whatever’s left of the Greatest Country in the History of the World.

I’ve followed each of these sagas closely. My addiction is now long past the point where it should’ve exploded my brain, but here I am, tweaking out on all the latest minutiae again.

Here’s how fiscal negotiations addiction works its dark magic: I understand at this point that the day-in, day-out drama of it all is entirely a theater production where the lead actors pander to their bases until the very last second, when they decide to maintain the status quo as planned all along. But the clearer this becomes—and it really can’t get much clearer—the more engrossed I am with the day-in, day-out drama that I know to be fictional.

This is the best month ever.

I live-tweeted C-SPAN from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday, for free, when no one asked me to.

Everyone was writing off Grover Norquist for dead, along with his famous anti-tax pledge, after a few congressional Republicans said they’d consider increasing revenue by eliminating certain tax deductions—a direct violation Norquist’s pledge! President Obam  already seemed to have the leverage at this point, with his ability to wait until after the fiscal cliff to draw up his own tax plan if he didn’t get one he liked. Now he saw his leverage get even more leverage-y. I read every article on the Internet about this. I kept another tab for TPM reporter Brian Beutler’s site, refreshing it all day. He is so smart about leverage, Brian—my go-to leverage guy.

And then, a few more hours on Twitter, reading about tax deductions and cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security beneficiaries and tweeting one-liners about them.

A Republican congressman then pointed out that his party would have more leverage if it passed Obama’s middle-class-only tax cuts before the end of the year and dealt with the spending cut side in January, after Obama had already given up his leverage. Could it work? I spent an hour on Twitter bombarding poor Brian with leverage questions.

I read about taxes and leverage and tweeted out links for 30 hours over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday. Don’t worry, I took some breaks… to read more of the fancy, think-tank tax and leverage stuff on the Internet, that is. Mark Schmitt of the Roosevelt Institute, for one, is a delicacy. “It’s a very complicated argument, but what it comes down to is this,” he writes in an article about budget baselines and interest groups’ scoring methods or something. “Letting the tax cuts expire by law would actually achieve many of the goals of tax reform… But if the tax reform is already half-completed, there’s less room for classic tax reform in a grand bargain.”

Yes! How can you say you’re doing tax reform if your top condition is to keep most of the Bush tax cuts in place? The idea of the parties ever wanting to radically upend the status quo in a mutually sacrifical “Grand Bargain” is a dirty lie! It was all starting to make sense, and I just needed to read a few more articles and tweets in the morning to discover the full truth…

…But then I woke up at 2 p.m. on Thursday, missing everything.

And it really didn’t fucking matter.

There are hundreds or thousands of other fellow fiscal negotiations junkies along with me. I see you there, on Twitter—don’t think I can’t tell.

This is bad. We’ve got to put an end to this sort of behavior before it wastes us.

I’m talking about you, Congress. Please stop attempting to craft these big budget deals that you’ll never execute. The negotiation process makes for some excellent, guilty-pleasure reality TV, but booming C-SPAN ratings aren’t the best indicator of a job well done.