Aftermath of the Great Debt Ceiling Debacle of 2011

Last summer, the American people learned that the only way their Congress could overcome ideological and partisan divisions and agree to a balanced deficit reduction plan was by threatening itself with a deficit reduction plan so severe members of Congress on both sides of the aisle would gladly accept an alternative plan.

We then learned that even under these circumstances, our Congress could not pass a balanced deficit reduction plan. With the looming sequestration, the technical term for that threat Congress imposed on itself, I thought it would be useful to reflect on the events of last summer and where things stand now.

First, a recap of last summer is in order. Spurred primarily by Tea Party Republican members of Congress, who refused to approve a routine increase of the debt ceiling without the Democrats agreeing to significant reductions in government spending, the United States Congress and the President entered into an intense end-of-session game of chicken as the clock ticked down. If Congress did not raise the debt ceiling, the government of theUnited States of Americawould default on its debt.

Initially, President Obama requested a clean vote to raise the debt ceiling without any spending cuts attached. When this vote failed at the end of May, Democrats began to realize that perhaps as a result of the 2010 midterm elections which brought a new breed of Republican toWashington, Republicans in Congress were serious in their political brinksmanship. The Republicans were serious when they said they would not raise the debt ceiling without tackling the deficit. If the credit rating was downgraded, so be it.

There were several high-profile attempts made to reach an agreement on deficit reduction that would satisfy the Republicans enough for them to grant us all the privilege of not having our credit rating downgraded. Vice President Biden entered into negotiations with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, who walked out of negotiations by the end of June citing their opposition to the Democrats’ insistence on “job-killing tax hikes.”

Seeking what was labeled a “grand bargain,” President Obama advocated the passage of a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan that included both spending cuts and new revenue. For a brief moment, it seemed the President had convinced Speaker Boehner to agree to the plan.

If the President had gotten his grand bargain, he would have scored a major political victory. The grand bargain would have allowed him to claim the mantle of a uniter and a deficit hawk, which would appeal to those valuable independent voters. But Speaker Boehner and the Republicans were not about to give Obama a political victory of this magnitude. However, partisanship  and divisions between the parties do not offer a complete explanation for why President Obama was unable to reach a grand bargain. Divisions within the Republican Party, particularly between the more old guard Republicans and the Tea Party Republicans who were swept into office in 2010, made such a grand bargain politically infeasible for Boehner. As Speaker of a House with many Republican freshmen who won their elections by vowing to serve as a bulwark against government spending and taxes, embracing the grand bargain would have undermined his reputation and credibility within that faction of his caucus. Moreover, he probably would not have been able to corral the necessary votes for its passage, which itself would be an embarrassment for the newly elected Speaker.

The House of Representatives, led by Speaker Boehner, passed the Republican-approved Cut, Cap, and Balance Act which would have authorized an increase in the debt ceiling only after a Balanced Budget Amendment was passed by Congress. Just as this partisan bill failed in the Senate, Reid’s plan passed through the Senate but was rejected by the House. Meanwhile, the Gang of Six tried and failed to come up with a solution.

Finally, at the end of July President Obama announced an agreement between his administration and congressional leaders. There would be $917 billion in spending cuts and deficit reduction coupled with a $900 billion increase in the debt ceiling in the first stage. For Standard & Poor’s, this was too little too late, and the agency downgraded the rating for the first time. In the second stage, a special joint committee of Congress would be tasked with finding another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by the end of November. If this Super Committee failed, across-the-board spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion and split between defense and nondefense programs would be triggered. The sequestration was intended to provide an incentive for the Super Committee to reach an agreement. On January 15th, 2012, the deadline had arrived, the Super Committee had not reached an agreement, and the automatic cuts were triggered.

The $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts are set to go into effect in January 2013. The first round of the defense cuts, totaling $109 billion, will go into effect on January 2nd. While Republicans criticize the President and his Democratic allies of playing politics with the defense budget, many Democrats have suggested that the Republicans brought these defense cuts upon themselves. Sequestration is no way to make policy. The Founders envisioned a legislative branch of government that was deliberative and reached conclusions on matters of policy through consensus building and compromise. The Democrats were willing to go to great lengths to reach a compromise, with the President even putting Medicare and Social Security cuts on the table. Republicans took defense cuts and tax increases off the table. It was under these dire circumstances that sequestration was employed, and I think it was justified by these circumstances.

The ultimate test of the wisdom of a political tactic is whether that tactic achieved the desired results. It is not completely clear what President Obama and his allies in Congress hoped to get out of the sequestration. This ambiguity is particularly apparent with respect to the defense cuts.While the President’s own Secretary of Defense has likened the automatic defense cuts to shooting ourselves in the head, the President has not said much about the cuts himself. So where do the President and his party stand on the issue?

The President recently announced that military personnel would be protected from the automatic cuts, but has dismissed Republican demands that he exclude other defense cuts from the sequestration. While his administration sounds the alarm about how devastating the defense cuts would be and continues to push Congress to reach a balanced agreement that would avoid the cuts, the President and his allies in Congress do not appear to be going out of their way to avoid them. Republican leaders in Congress have requested that Senator Reid pass a package of alternative spending cuts in order to avoid the automatic defense cuts. Disagreements over taxes, of course, continue to prevent the two parties from agreeing on an alternative package.

President Obama has discussed his vision for a “leaner” military and a light footprint strategy. We have seen the strategy used effectively inLibya. A new Obama campaign television advertisement criticizes Romney for favoring increases in defense spending, among other things. He may not say it outright, but it does not seem like President Obama is strongly opposed to these defense cuts.

With the sequestration, President Obama essentially forced the Republicans to choose between increases in tax revenue and cuts in defense spending. The Republicans hated both options, but between Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge and the Tea Party, the Republicans had their backs up against the wall. A significant number of Republicans in Congress had won their seats in 2010 after promising not to raise taxes and to go toWashingtonas soldiers in the war against government spending. I think a number of Republicans may have believed that the defense cuts were so severe that members of both parties would eventually reach some agreement to exclude them from the sequestration. Believing or hoping that the sequestration was an empty threat, Republicans refused to raise taxes and accepted the risk of sequestration. Raising taxes would have had definite political consequences whereas the political consequences of the defense cuts were deemed to be only hypothetical.

Despite Republicans consistently making defense spending a sacred cow that must be off the table in any discussion of spending cuts, dramatic defense cuts are imminent. If it was their aim to cut defense spending, and it seems like it was in fact their aim, then it can be said that President Obama and his allies in Congress successfully employed a shrewd political tactic to achieve the results they desired.

What is now called the Department of Defense was once called the Department of War. The wars inAfghanistanandIraqwere not defensive wars. NeitherIraqnorAfghanistanattacked theUnited States. NeitherIraqnorAfghanistanposed an existential threat to theUnited States. President Bush and his administration tried their hardest to convince us otherwise. Such a broad conception of defense has led to misguided wars and excessive military spending. Today, those who favor a leaner military and anAmericathat truly walks softly and carries a big stick are on the verge of making some progress. Unfortunately, it took the messy politics of sequestration to make this happen.

There is no meaningful distinction between WPRO news and talk

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 1.15.53 PMWPRO’s Tara Granahan called me at 5:45pm Monday night to ask me if I would come on and do an interview with her about the May 1st Day of Reason proclamation Governor Chafee was kind enough to sign on behalf of the Humanists of Rhode Island and the Secular Coalition of Rhode Island. I asked her if this was for the “talk side” of WPRO or for the “news side.”

Granahan told me that she was covering for Matt Allen’s talk show and that she would like to have me on to discuss the proclamation, but she also knew where I was going with my question. She knows that as long as John DePetro is employed at WPRO, I will be honoring the “For Our Daughters” campaign and not appearing on any WPRO talk radio programs.

DePetro 1129amFor those of you who don’t know, For Our Daughters was formed in the wake of comments made by John DePetro last year in which he called women union protesters “whores.” DePetro was suspended for a while, but the station ultimately brought him back on the air, where he remains to this day. For Our Daughters has asked people who support women to avoid going on any WPRO Talk shows until DePetro is removed from the station.

DePetro 0401pmHowever, in deference to the news gathering side of WPRO, where decent work is done covering local news, the For Our Daughters campaign thinks it would be okay to appear on WPRO if the appearance isn’t on one of the talk radio programs. Granahan said that if I wouldn’t appear on the talk show, she would set me up with someone from the news side. I told her I would call her back.

DePetro 0400pmThere’s a commonly repeated piece of advice that says that if you have a chance to spread your message, you should take it, even if that means appearing on a hostile news show. There is, it is believed, no bad publicity, as long as you keep your cool and behave reasonably. I followed this advice for a long time, appearing on the John DePetro Show three times and the Helen Glover Show once. All four experiences were emotionally draining. In studio, the hosts are usually gracious enough, and they sometimes give you that wink and a nod during the show to let you know that the whole experience is little more than theater and that in reality, it’s all about putting on a good show, not about exploring the issues.

DePetro 0425pmIn person, radio show shock jocks like DePetro want to give the impression that they are better than the audience they are catering to. The big secret is that it’s all a big game, a way to make money and news radio hosts don’t really believe that what they are doing is worth anything, or that any of the issues they drone on about are truly important. It’s all about raising the emotional blood pressure of the audience, and selling commercials.
DePetro 0627pmI first met Tara Granahan during the Cranston prayer banner kerfuffle my niece, Jessica Ahlquist, was involved in. Granahan asked me if I would do a quick interview. I told her that I didn’t like the way her station treated my family, and she quickly went into her standard line about how the news side and the talk side of WPRO were separate, and that she would treat me fairly. As it turns out, she didn’t treat me fairly, in my opinion. Going on her morning news program once or twice on different issues over the following years didn’t endear her to me either. She asked leading questions, and she seemed more interested in getting me flustered so that I would say something stupid than really asking for my views.
DePetro 0737pmMaybe I’m slow, but one day I realized what was really going on: The news side supplies audio clips of interviews to the talk side for use during their shows. I can decide to only speak to the WPRO news reporters, but there’s nothing stopping John DePetro, Buddy Cianci or Matt Allen from taking clips from the interview and using it on their program. People can make the talk side/news side distinction all they want, and it certainly saves the news side people some embarrassment to make the distinction, but in truth there is no distinction at all. You can’t appear on WPRO without the possibility of John DePetro using your words against you in some unsavory and misleading way.
DePetro 0753pmJohn DePetro doesn’t seem to like me very much. On his website he flatly states his bigotry towards atheists, and whenever he needs to incite his audience, he mentions my family’s name in some insulting and demeaning way. I stopped doing his show long before DePetro made the offensive, misogynist comments that should have gotten him fired. I stopped going on his show because I found him to be a two-faced jackass. Not only did he speak differently about me when I was in the studio than when I was out of the studio, DePetro has a habit of talking behind people’s back, telling embarrassing stories about fans of his show and regular guests. For instance, he told me a terrible story about Kara Russo Young that I would never repeat, because it was so offensive and besides the point.
DePetro 0755pmI’ve seldom met anyone who projected as little character as John DePetro. I feel a little bad for him, because he’s more driven than talented, and I fear he’ll never get as far in his career as he thinks his talent should take him. He’s destined for a life of disappointment.
DePetro 0957pmSo I called Tara Granahan back, and told her that as far as I’m concerned, WPRO is not worth appearing on. This is a shame, because there are some good people working there. I see WPRO reporters like Steve Klamkin out on news stories and doing good work. But WPRO is a moral cesspool, and appearing on the same station that continues to employ John DePetro is not something I can do. Even as I was telling Granahan my reasons for not appearing on her show, John DePetro was “Twitter trolling” me with bigoted, hateful and insulting comments (which I’ve run here).

I didn’t engage with DePetro on Twitter. I don’t care about DePetro. This post is about him only as an explanation for why I won’t appear on WPRO.

The idea that one should go on any show and access any media that will have you is flawed. We can pick and choose who we deal with, and it does not hurt our causes to avoid appearing on a station that supports misogynist bigots. Further, the distinction between WPRO’s news side and talk side is illusory. WPRO should invite people on with a Miranda warning attached: “Any appearance on WPRO News can and will be used against you by WPRO Talk.”

Providence hotel workers fight for $15 at City Hall

Hotel Workers Providence City Hall 011Providence hotel workers took to the City Council meeting last night to show support for a $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance for the lodging industry in the Capital City. More than 1,000 people signed a petition to have the Providence City Council consider legislating a higher wage after public protests and unionization efforts ended in three employees of the Hilton Providence losing their jobs.

Below is a video and photo essay of some of the people Providence city councilors will have to answer to if they don’t support the ordinance. The sign in the first picture shows three councilors support the minimum wage, but after the meeting Councilors Aponte and Jennings signed on, bringing the total to five in support. None have declared opposition and 10 are still undecided.

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