On Rules and Norms: 4 Reasons to Regret This Moment

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OK, enough of this uplift. Back to business.

A few months ago, after I had done a post about destructive rule-changes in current American politics, Andrew Sprung wrote back with this refinement:

>>It's not the rules, it's the norms. That is, the GOP, led first by Gingrich and then by Bush Jr., blew through norms and broke taboos that had greased our democratic machinery for decades prior to the early 90s. These include, "you shall not filibuster every pending bill or block every opposition appointment" as well as "you shall not torture detainees or politicize Justice Department hiring." On the other hand: with the old norms broken, we need some new rules to create new norms.<<

That's on my mind more and more as we assess the damage of the past month in American politics. Let's assess why the results are so sobering:

1. In economics, we have the spectacle of a new wave of public austerity just as the private economy begins to contract again. World markets were "uncertain" during the period of doubt about a debt-ceiling agreement. Now that we have the certainty of contraction and austerity, markets have been down, hard. More important, layoffs are headed up.

2. In the realm of public discourse, we have had a discussion that proceeded as if no one had ever heard that cutting government spending, as private payrolls fall, is a time-tested route toward lower payrolls, more cutbacks, and a longer, harder descent for everyone involved. Maybe you don't want to believe Keynes (even just The Economic Consequences of the Peace) or other postwar economists; or historians or analysts from Robert Skidelsky to Liaquat Ahamed; or Richard Nixon! In that case maybe you'll believe Hu Jintao. We've just had a debate about public finance comparable to a debate about the moon program in which no one had heard of gravity.

490px-John_Mica_Portrait.jpg3. In the realm of public function, we have the unbelievable travesty of the FAA quasi-shutdown. As Don Brown, longtime FAA controller and safety expert, and former guest blogger on this site, has explained, it's largely thanks to one man -- Rep. John Mica, shown looking dapper in an official photo at right -- that at this moment some 4,000 FAA employees and their families are without income, plus some 70,000 construction workers and their families who are laid off without income while construction projects have been frozen. And this while Mica and his colleagues go on their (paid) month-plus vacation. And while the FAA loses far more in tax revenue from the airlines each day than the "wasteful" spending being argued about each year.

Mica and his colleagues did this through a step that was "within the rules" though obviously destructive. They passed a version of the FAA bill with provisions they knew the Senate wouldn't accept -- and then adjourned for (paid) August vacation, leaving the Senate to swallow their unilateral demands or leave tens of thousands of families without paychecks. All this, of course, as opposed to arranging a way to keep things running while they worked out their political disputes. Many airport safety inspectors are being asked to do their work as volunteers, and run up expenses on their personal credit cards in hopes of later reimbursement. We're not just asking the Chinese to cover our inability to pay our way; we're asking our own GS-12s. This is squalid. As one reader wrote today:

>>I have to wonder, how long can the airport inspectors continue to do their jobs without pay while covering their own travel expenses?  I know this isn't exactly a typical charity case but have you heard anything about a fund being set up for these guys or anything like that?  I'd certainly donate to help keep these guys afloat while the FAA's finances are in limbo.<<

Governments exist precisely because it doesn't make sense to pass the hat for airport safety  -- or border protection or the public-health service etc. You can argue about a lot of government responsibilities, but transportation safety is pretty close to everyone's idea of a core public function. But -- to hell with it! And to those 74,000 families with no paychecks. Let them tighten their belts. This will help the recovery in so many ways, just as the the $1 billion or so in foregone FAA revenues will help cut the deficit.

Maybe Congressman Mica and others who voted for the bill would be willing to front their pay, during the shutdown, to help tide FAA employees or contractors through the hardship? Just a thought.

4. As a matter of political norms, we've been through a change that may be hard to reverse. In essence: moves that were technically legal, but were "not done" because they were too brutal or destructive, have now been done -- and have paid off. It's like the Indiana Jones scene where a sword fighter is warming up for a duel and Indy pulls out his gun to shoot him dead. No one will enter a fight without a gun again. As David Frum put it today:

>>The debt ceiling debate feels like one of those tragic episodes out of the history of the fall of republics. To gain their point on a budget matter, Republicans did something unprecedented in the annals of American government. They made a bargaining chip out of the public credit of the United States. In a well-functioning democracy, certain threats are just not used [not a rule but a norm], and the threat to force the country into default should rank high on the list of unacceptable threats.

Yet congressional Republicans not only issued the threat, they did so successfully. They have changed the rules of the game in ways that will have ramifications for a long time. Maybe Democrats will copy them. Or maybe Republicans will do it again. Either way -- something that was once unthinkable has become thinkable.<<

To draw out the comparison, the President appears to have approached the showdown as neither a chess master nor a pawn but as a dignified sword fighter, against foes with guns in both hands.

More on this anon, including reader messages both pro and con the President's handling of the challenge.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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