Dysfunctional U.S. Congress Careens Towards U.S. Default

Yesterday’s actions in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate regarding the U.S. debt ceiling were depressing signs of the dysfunctionality of our system of government.[1]

In the House Speaker Boehner rejected my advice to craft a truly bipartisan bill to increase our debt ceiling.[2] Instead he added another provision to his bill to gain additional support from the Tea Party members for passage of the Republican measure to increase the debt ceiling. That new provision would require Senate and House approval of a balanced budget amendment to our Constitution before there could be a second increase in the debt ceiling, presumably next year. Even with that provision, the bill was only approved 218 to 210. (In the House, a simple majority is necessary; that currently is 217.)[3]

This is not any way to go about amending our Constitution, in my opinion. Such action should be done calmly and cautiously, as suggested by the constitutional requirement for a two-thirds vote in each house for such amendments.[4] There should be fair and open hearings in both houses of the Congress for careful consideration of the pros and cons of any proposed amendment, including this one. Such has not happened on this proposal. Although I have not studied this particular proposed amendment, I am very skeptical of the merits of the idea for two main reasons. First, I believe it would be difficult to run the federal government under such a system. Second, Keynesian economics suggests the need for the federal government to run deficits during economic recessions.

Now attention turns to the U.S. Senate which yesterday immediately tabled this House bill, 59-41.

Thus, we now enter the world governed by the abominable Senate Rules.[5] Yesterday Majority Leader Reid made a motion to limit debate, and under Senate Rules the earliest that motion can be voted upon is tomorrow (Sunday) at 1:00 a.m. Passage of that motion requires 60 votes, meaning that if all 53 Democratic and Independent Senators support the motion, seven Republican votes are needed for that motion to be adopted. Yesterday Senator Reid said he did not yet have the 60 votes needed for cloture. If the cloture motion is adopted, then under the Senate Rules there has to be 30 hours available for debate, meaning that the earliest the Senate could vote on the merits of the Reid debt-ceiling bill would be 7:30 a.m. on Monday (August 1). (In the unlikely event of unanimous consent, the measure could be voted on before then.)[6]

If somehow the Senate actually adopts a debt-ceiling bill, then it has to go back to the House for its approval by 217 votes. If all the 193 Democratic representatives supported such a bill, then at least 24 Republican representatives would have to join them in order for it to pass the House. Is that possible? (I shudder to think that the House would pass a slightly different bill that would require a conference committee and subsequent votes by the two houses.)[7]

World financial markets already are signaling the adverse impact of an U.S. failure to increase the debt ceiling and an U.S. default on its obligations.

I pray that my analysis is wrong and that somehow by next Tuesday both houses of Congress can pass a debt-ceiling bill that President Obama can sign into law.

[1] See Post: Disgusting U.S. Political Scene (July 23, 2011).

[2] See Post: A Message for Speaker Boehner (July 29, 2011).

[3] Hulse & Pear, Senate Quickly Kills Boehner Debt Bill, N.Y. Times (July 29, 2011).

[4]  U.S. Const., Art. V. Actually such action by the two houses of Congress would result in a proposed amendment that would have to be approved by three-fourths (or 38) of the states in order for the constitutional  amendment to be adopted. (Id.)

[5] See Post: The Abominable Rules of the U.S. Senate (April 6, 2011).

[6] Helderman, Senate headed for critical vote Sunday, Washington Post (July 30, 2011).

[7] Yesterday, the House Republicans said that they would have a symbolic vote today to show that the Reid approach to debt ceiling cannot pass the House. (Hulse & Pear, Senate Quickly Kills Boehner Debt Bill, N.Y. Times (July 29, 2011).)

A Message for Speaker Boehner

Time is running out on increasing the U.S. debt ceiling by our Congress. The latest spectacle of the increasingly dysfunctional Congress is the inability of John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to muster a majority vote by his fellow Republicans for his plan to raise the debt ceiling.

As a result, last night I sent the following email message to the Speaker:

  • In your recent speech to the nation, you said that you were Speaker of the House, not of the Republican Party or its Tea Party component.
  • The time has come for you to rise to the occasion, to in fact be the Speaker of the entire House.
  • You need to craft a truly bipartisan bill on the debt ceiling and budget that garners the support of responsible members of the Republican Party and of the Democratic Party. Immediately!
  • I obviously am not in your District, and I am not a Republican. But our country needs to avoid a default on its debt. I think you know that such a default would have catastrophic consequences for the U.S. and global economy and financial markets.
  • Do the right thing.


The Founder of Modern Conservatism’s Perspective on the Current U.S. Political Turmoil

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in Britain’s House of Commons as a member of the Whig party. He is remembered for his support of the cause of the American Revolution and for his later opposition to the French Revolution. He often has been regarded as the philosophic founder of modern conservatism.[1]

In 1774 Burke was elected to Parliament for Bristol, which at the time was “England’s second city” and a great trading city. Many of his constituents were opposed to free trade with Ireland, which Burke supported. This and other issues lead to his defeat in the 1780 parliamentary election.

After his election in 1774, Burke gave what became a famous speech on the philosophy of the duties of an elected representative. He said:

  • “[I]t ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasure, his satisfactions, to theirs—and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.
  • But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure—no, nor from the law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. . . .
  • [G]overnment and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that in which the determination precedes the discussion, in which one set of men deliberate and another decide, and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?
  • To deliver an opinion is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to consider. But authoritative instructions, mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest convictions of his judgment and conscience—these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our Constitution.. . .
  • Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest—that of the whole—where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far as any other from any endeavour to give it effect.” [2] (Emphasis in bold added.)

Fast forward from Britain in 1774 to the U.S. in 2011. Many groups now ask or demand that candidates for public office sign pledges to adhere without exception to certain positions held by the group. I think especially today of Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform with his insistence on “no new taxes.”[3]

This is a horrible development in our political life. I am opposed to all such pledges on the grounds advanced by Burke. I am also opposed to the Norquist pledge in particular.[4]

[2] Edmund Burke, Speech To The Electors Of Bristol At The Conclusion Of The Poll (Nov. 7, 1774), http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html.

[3]  Wikipedia, Grover Norquist, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grover_Norquist; Americans for Tax Reform, http://www.atr.org/taxpayer-protection-pledge.

[4] Post: My Political Philosophy(April 4, 2011); Post: Passionate, Committed Political Leadership (July 22, 2011); Post: Disgusting U.S. Political Scene (July 23, 2011).

Westminster Town Hall Forum: Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg

On April 14, 2011, Marcus Borg was the speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. His topic: Speaking Christian.[1]

Borg asserted that each religion is like a language that expresses through words a way of seeing reality and a way of life (ethos). Thus, being a Christian requires one to understand and speak the language of Christianity.

Today in the U.S. (and Europe), however, the Christian language often is unfamiliar and misunderstood.

It is unfamiliar because so many citizens have grown up “unchurched.”

It is misunderstood because of a greater cultural unfamiliarity with Christianity and because of “literalization” of the Christian language by some. The latter is associated with the 17th century’s introduction of notions of Biblical infallibility and the 20th century’s notion of Biblical inerrancy.

To keep Christianity vibrant in the 21st century it is necessary for us,, says Borg, to reclaim the Christian language and speak Christian. To this end, Borg offered the following examples of Biblical terms that need such reclamation:

  • “Salvation” really signifies transformation in this life/liberation from bondage/returning home  from exile/deliverance from an illness or enemy. It is never about the afterlife in the Old Testament, and seldom is in the New Testament.
  • “Redemption” really signifies release from bondage.
  • “Repentance” in the New Testament means going beyond the mind that you have (our socialized mind).
  • “Sacrifice” means making something holy by offering it to God.
  • “Righteous” means just or justice.
  • “Believe” means “belove” or “I give my heart to” a person (God or Jesus). It is a way of expressing loyalty, devotion or commitment. It is not giving intellectual assent to a proposition.
  • “Kingdom of God” means a transformed earth.

Borg also said it is necessary for Christians to be bilingual. We need to speak the Christian language within our community of faith and to speak about Christianity to non-Christians in ordinary language.

Religion, for Borg, is a practical means of initiating transformation, of healing the wounds of existence, the way that spirituality gains traction in history.

The Bible, says Borg, is a pervasive political document from beginning to end. Judaism’s primal narrative, the exodus from Egypt, is a story of liberation from political bondage and economic exploitation. It tells us that it is God’s will that we not be slaves.

Marcus Borg is the Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon and a professor emeritus in the philosophy department at Oregon State University. He was an active member of the Jesus Seminar that aimed at discovering and reporting a scholarly consensus on the historical authenticity of the sayings and events attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.[2] He also served as chair of the historical Jesus section of the Society of Biblical Literature.[3] Borg is the author of 19 books, including Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and The Heart of Christianity. In his latest book, Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith, he explores some of the important issues facing Christianity today.[4]


Sanctuary, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis

The Westminster Town Hall Forum engages the public in reflection and dialogue on the key issues of our day from an ethical perspective. The Forum is nonpartisan and nonsectarian. Forums are free and open to the public. They are usually held on select Thursdays from September through May from noon to 1:00 p.m. (CT) at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Nicollet Mall and 12th Street, in downtown Minneapolis. Each forum is preceded by music at 11:30 a.m. A public reception and small group discussion follow the forum from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. The Forum presentations also are broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio.[5]

[1] Westminster Town Hall Forum, Marcus Borg, http://westminsterforum.org/?p=770 (contains streaming video and audio links of the presentation).

[3] Founded in 1880, The Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines. (Society of Biblical Literature, http://www.sbl-site.org/default.aspx.)

[4] Marcus J. Borg, http://www.marcusjborg.com/.

[5] Westminster Town Hall Forum, http://westminsterforum.org/; http://www.facebook.com/l/UAQAsQrFg/westminsterforum.org. See Post: Westminster Town Hall Forum (July 25, 2011); Post: Westminster Town Hall Forum: Krista Tippett (July 26, 2011).


Westminster Town Hall Forum: Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett

On June 24, 2011, Krista Tippett was the speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. Her topic: Spiritual Genius: Lessons for Living.[1]

Tippett started her presentation by talking about Albert Einstein, who found Jesus, Gandhi, St. Francis of Assisi and Buddha to be geniuses in the art of living. Such Spiritual Geniuses, Einstein thought, were more necessary to human dignity, security and joy than those who are concerned with discovery of objective knowledge.

Tippett then discussed the qualities of Spiritual Genius that she has gathered from her conversations with serious people in her radio program and her own thought and reading.

First was understanding that spirituality was a whole body/whole self experience. Spirituality was embodied in time and space. Such an understanding is associated with a reverence for mystery and a sense of wonder at all of life. It leads to a deepened sense of place in the cosmos and greater compassion for all of life.

Second was recognizing that living better, loving better and being more compassionate are difficult to do. We often fail. We are imperfect. Acknowledging our failures and imperfections is essential to being at home with ourselves. Strength and weakness are a core message of Christianity. How we carry what has gone wrong with us is important.

Third was practice. Virtues are spiritual technology or “apps” that help us to live better. She noted the discovery of neuroscientist Richard Davidson that the brains of Buddhist monks who regularly engaged in meditation were physically changed. These virtues include the following:

  • Beauty. We need to be attentive to beauty, which is a mark of God. Islam holds that Allah or God is beauty and loves beauty. Scientists say if an equation is not beautiful, it is not true. Beauty is that in whose presence we feel most alive.
  • Humor. Desmond Tutu told her that God has a sense of humor.
  • Asking good questions. Wrong questions lead to wrong answers and wrong conclusions and then to meaningless arguments. It is redemptive and life-giving to ask good questions. Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet told us to love the questions themselves, to not go searching for the answers to those questions, but instead to live the questions so that perhaps we will live our way into the answers.
  • Hospitality. This was a virtue that was easier to practice than the virtues of forgiveness and compassion.
  • Forgiveness. This was a complex virtue that she did not have time to explore in this presentation. She noted that we do not forgive and forget.
  • Compassion.

In response to a question about recommendations for books on the topic of her presentation, she mentioned Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.[2]

Ms. Tippett is a journalist, author and Peabody-award-winning broadcaster. As the creator and host of the public radio program On Being (formerly Speaking of Faith), she explores with her distinguished guests the animating questions of human life: What does it mean to be human and how do we want to live?[3] Her two books are Speaking of Faith and Einstein’s God.

Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis

The Westminster Town Hall Forum engages the public in reflection and dialogue on the key issues of our day from an ethical perspective. The Forum is nonpartisan and nonsectarian. Forums are free and open to the public. They usually are held on select Thursdays from September through May from noon to 1:00 p.m. (CT) at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Nicollet Mall and 12th Street, in downtown Minneapolis. Each forum is preceded by music at 11:30 a.m. A public reception and small group discussion follow the forum from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. The Forum presentations also are broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio.[4]


[1] Westminster Town Hall Forum, Krista Tippett, http://westminsterforum.org/?p=921 (streaming video and audio of the presentation).

[2] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (1999), http://www.amazon.com/Let-Your-Life-Speak-Listening/dp/0787947350/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1311626881&sr=1-1.

[3]  American Public Media, Krista Tippett on Being, http://being.publicradio.org/about.

[4]  Westminster Town Hall Forum, http://westminsterforum.org; http://www.facebook.com/l/UAQAsQrFg/westminsterforum.org. See Post: Westminster Town Hall Forum (July 25, 2011). This particular Forum was co-sponsored by the Hennepin County Libraries.

Westminster Town Hall Forum

The Westminster Town Hall Forum engages the public in reflection and dialogue on the key issues of our day from an ethical perspective. The Forum is nonpartisan and nonsectarian.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis

Forums are free and open to the public. They are held on select Thursdays from September through May from noon to 1:00 p.m. (CT) at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Nicollet Mall and 12th Street, in downtown Minneapolis. Each forum is preceded by music at 11:30 a.m. A public reception and small group discussion follow the forum from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. The Forum presentations also are broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio.

The Forum started over 30 years ago with its first speaker, Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Since then it has featured over 200 speakers, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the inspirational South African leader; Elie Wiesel, the author and Holocaust survivor; Arthur Schlesinger, American historian and presidential assistant; Ellen Goodman, newspaper columnist; Cornel West, Princeton University Professor; Gwen Ifill, television journalist; Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist; Robert Coles, author, child psychiatrist and Harvard University Professor; Walter Mondale, former U.S. Senator and Vice President; Salman Rushdie, novelist;  and Edward Albee, playwright.

David Brooks at Forum

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, author and commentator, has appeared twice in recent years at the Forum, to audiences of over 3,000 each time.

[1] Westminster Town Hall Forum, http://westminsterforum.org/.

Disgusting U.S. Political Scene

The current political wrangling in the U.S. Congress over the U.S. debt ceiling is disgusting.

In order for the U.S. to avoid defaulting on its Treasury securities, the U.S. Congress needs to pass a bill to increase the debt ceiling before August 2, 2011. If the Congress does not do so, then there would be catastrophic consequences for the U.S. and hence the global economy. Most economists and informed commentators, I think, are agreed on these propositions. Moreover, in my opinion, it is too risky to experiment and test the contrary views expressed by the minority.

Some stupid suggestions have been made to evade the above analysis and not raise the debt ceiling. Former Minnesota Governor and presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty said the U.S. could continue to pay interest on its securities (a lot of which are held by the Chinese government) and not pay U.S. military personnel and ordinary Americans.[1] Another Minnesota presidential candidate, Michelle Bachmann, has taken a similar position.[2] Even if such absurd actions could avoid adverse reaction in the world market for U.S. securities, which I doubt, who can seriously believe that there would not be a horrendous chain of reactions from our military personnel and citizens?

How can Pawlenty and Bachmann be taken as serious presidential candidates in light of just these stupid suggestions? Yet I read that Bachmann was number one in recent opinion polls of Republicans.

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has admitted that not raising the debt ceiling runs a very high risk of causing disastrous consequences to the U.S. Therefore, he has proposed what is sometimes referred to as “Plan B,” a bill that would allow President Obama unilaterally to raise the debt ceiling for the balance of his term of office. This plan, McConnell crassly admitted, was motivated by his desire not to help President Obama get reelected.[3]

The Republicans’ call for reductions in government spending  flies in the face of the elemental formula for Gross National Product: B (business spending) + C (consumer spending) + G (government spending) + E (net exports or exports- imports) = GNP (Gross National Product). Reducing government spending their way will reduce the incomes of many people dependent upon the government and, therefore, probably cause a reduction in consumer spending. Moreover, it is delusional, in my judgment, to believe that reducing government spending will cause an explosive increase in business confidence and spending to counterbalance the reduction in the former. Many corporations already have huge stashes of cash that they are not spending because consumer spending is weak. Consumer spending is weak because of high unemployment, general economic anxiety and reduced consumer wealth associated with declines in home values. In short, reducing government spending the way the Republicans want to do it will worsen our stalling recovery.[4]

Moreover, the Republicans’ call focuses on the smaller slice of the federal budget devoted to improving our deteriorating infrastructure and maintaining the frayed social safety net for our citizens. We the People should be able to see these adverse developments with our own eyes. And those who know something about what is happening in the rest of the world know that the U.S. is falling behind many other countries on many facets of a healthful society.[5]

No one, to my knowledge, is discussing the most important issue, in my opinion, that is raised by the huge and mounting U.S. national debt that needs to be addressed. What is a new U.S. national security strategy that protects the vital interests of our country while vastly reducing the size and global span of the U.S. military? Is the U.S. now in the position of earlier empires whose foreign expenditures to maintain their empires dragged down those regimes?

We the People and all of our elected representatives need to recover the spirit of moderation.

Learned Hand

This spirit, said Learned Hand, “is the temper which does not press a partisan advantage to the bitter end, which can understand and will respect the other side, which feels a unity between all citizens–real and not the factitious product of propaganda–which recognizes their common fate and their common aspirations–in a word, which has faith in the sacredness of the individual. . . . [Such a spirit and faith] are the last flowers of civilization, delicate and easily overrun by the weeds of our sinful human nature. . . . They are the fruit of the wisdom that comes of trial and a pure heart; no one can possess them who has not stood in awe before the spectacle of this mysterious Universe; no one can possess them whom that spectacle has not purged through pity and through fear–pity for the pride and folly which inexorably enmesh men in toils of their own contriving; fear, because that same pride and that same folly lie deep in the recesses of his own soul.”[6]

[1] E.g., Kane, Pawlenty: If debt ceiling not raised, pay “outsie creditors” first, (July 15, 2011), http://www.rawstory.com.

[2] E.g., Bachmann, No Debt Ceiling Increase, http://www.michelebachmann.com; Drum, Bachmann and the Debt Ceiling, (July 20, 2011), www. motherjones.com.

[3] E.g., Stein, McConnell Debt Ceiling Strategy: “I refuse To Help Obama Reelection,” Huffington Post (July 13, 2011).

[4] E.g., Krugman, The Lesser Depression, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2011).

[5] E.g., Thomas Friedman, Still Digging (Dec. 7, 2010).

[6]  Learned Hand, The Spirit of Liberty at 164-65 (3d ed.; Phoenix ed.; Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press 1977).