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Debt Ceiling Limbo Continues

This is a very important story, with profound consequences, that is occupying most of the oxygen in Washington right now. So, we pretty much have to write about it every day. However, the way this ends is already known: The politicians aren't going to let the U.S. default on its obligations, and they aren't likely to let things get especially close. The consequences are too dire. So, the only question is how and when we get to the inevitable denouement.

Because we have to keep writing about this, we keep trying to find ways to keep it fresh. Also, we want to make sure folks keep in mind that this is all just a theatrical performance being instigated for our benefit by the leadership of the Republican Party. This is not to say that the Democrats are above a little political theater, but they're not the responsible parties here, since a debt-ceiling drama does not serve their needs right now. Anyhow, in service of both of our goals, we've already used kabuki theater, ballet, disco, and yoga, among others. Today, we are going to assign a well-known fad dance to each of the key players in the performance. You'll have to figure out for yourself why we chose the dances we did, though.

Let us start with the single most important piece of information, one that has gotten virtually no coverage, and that was brought to our attention by reader R.M. in New York City, New York. Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth "Thunder Clap" MacDonough—or her staff, it's not clear which—has already approved a standalone debt-ceiling reconciliation bill. That came on Monday night, and it really wrecks the main objective of Senate Minority Leader Mitch "The Jerk" McConnell (R-KY). He was trying to force the Democrats to abandon their infrastructure reconciliation bill, and to use the reconciliation chit on the debt ceiling instead. Now, the blue team can have both things.

At this point, then, the only "win" the Republicans are going to squeeze out of this is potential talking points for next year's election, in the form of attacks on the Democrats for raising the debt ceiling (and, by disingenuous implication, increasing the national debt). This said, the Senate GOP conference still has some tactical choices to make, and they have to steer a course between "collecting ammunition to use against the Democrats" and "badly damaging the U.S. economy and possibly taking the blame for that." Sen. Lindsey "Y.M.C.A." Graham is the Republicans' point person on all of this, by virtue of being the ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Budget, and he said "I mean, I'm not going to be a complete a**hole about it. But I'm going to make them take some tough votes."

Here, in brief, are the Republicans' three options:

  1. Reconciliation, but Make It Hard: The Republicans can really drag the reconciliation process out, forcing the Democrats into a bunch of votes, and compelling them to cancel their next vacation, and using up valuable time that would then be unavailable for approving judges or negotiating reconciliation bills, and otherwise making the blue team suffer. To nobody's surprise, Sen. Ted "The Creep" Cruz (R-TX) is the leading advocate for this approach. The downside, beyond further damage to whatever shreds of collegiality remain in the Senate, is that this would push the process very close to the expected default date (Oct. 18), which would harm the economy even without an actual default. Of course, with Democrats having the trifecta, damaging the economy a bit is a feature and not a bug for someone like Cruz.

  2. Reconciliation, but Make It Easy: The majority of the Republican conference appears to believe that, if the Democrats surrender and agree to a reconciliation bill, the GOP conference should make things as easy as possible, since they will have gotten the main thing they are going for (now). That approach would put the economy at less risk.

  3. Straight Vote: Several unnamed Republican senators reportedly favor an even easier path, namely dropping the filibuster, and letting the Democrats pass a clean debt-ceiling bill on a party-line vote. This would also give the GOP members the cudgel they hope to wield, and would minimize the damage done to collegiality and to the U.S. economy.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to openly embrace reconciliation, even if they can do it without giving up the infrastructure-focused reconciliation bill. "Cotton-Eyed Joe" Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck "Mashed Potato" Schumer and Speaker Nancy "Grizzly Bear" Pelosi don't particularly want to waste a bunch of time, or risk the health of the economy, or set a precedent. So, their official position is that a clean debt-ceiling bill is all they will consider. However, we also see three options for them:

  1. Reconciliation, and Play It Straight: The reason the Democrats don't like the reconciliation option, beyond the time involved and the possibility of taking unpleasant votes, is that they would have to commit to a specific number, and that number would be used against them. In other words, they might raise the current debt ceiling from $28.5 trillion to $35 trillion and then see their party attacked next year for adding $6.5 trillion to the debt, even though that would be a falsehood.

  2. Reconciliation, but Push the Boundaries: The Democrats could also do something that we, and many others, have suggested, namely raise the debt ceiling to a comical figure, like 100 googolplex dollars. That would make the whole thing semi-comical, and would make it harder for the Republicans to attack, because clearly the Democrats did not spend $1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. It would also end this issue for, at very least, the next decade. However, this approach would also guarantee that the Republicans make the reconciliation route as painful as is possible.

    There is also another alternative. Quite often, the debt ceiling is not raised, per se; it's just suspended. At the moment, it's not legal to suspend the debt ceiling via a reconciliation bill. However, two days ago, it wasn't legal to have an extra reconciliation bill raising the ceiling, and look where we are now. Point is, they could ask MacDonough & Co. if it's ok to suspend, rather than commit to a specific target. Since that would clearly have a substantive impact on the budget and the economy, she might go for it. It certainly can't hurt to ask.

  3. Filibuster Carve-out: It would be very simple for the Democrats to change the rules to make debt-ceiling bills unfilibusterable. However, they need all 50 Democratic and independent votes in the Senate, and they don't have the vote of Sen. Joe "Da Butt" Manchin (D-WV), who reiterated that he's not open to any carve-outs. The big news on this front is that Joe Biden was saying that too, but he said Tuesday that's he warming up to the option, and that it may be necessary to make the change.

That is the latest. We'll see if this is where things stand in 24 hours, or if it's a whole new ball game within a few hours of you reading this. (Z)

Panama, Meet Pandora

The Panama Papers, which were made public in 2016, included 11.5 million documents that revealed much information about the financial maneuvering of those who are rich, powerful, and/or potentially criminal, largely involving offshore finances. That was followed, in 2017, by the Paradise Papers, which included 13.4 million documents that are similar in nature to the Panama Papers.

In the last couple of weeks (the documents tend to come out in bunches, over the course of days, weeks, or months), those two have been joined by the Pandora Papers, which is being called the biggest such leak to date, with 11.9 million documents that reference somewhere between $6 trillion and $32 trillion in assets. They are called the Pandora Papers because, of course, "Pandora's box" has been opened, and because the tradition of P.P. alliteration is now established. For our part, we are looking forward to the release of the Pickwick Papers, which presumably will document the financial maneuverings of wealthy Britons of the Victorian era.

Anyhow, the main focus of most coverage of the leak has been the identities of those folks whose secrets were leaked. There are a bunch of prominent current and former world leaders, including Abdullah II of Jordan, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, former UK PM Tony Blair, and former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi. There are also plenty of celebrities, including Elton John, Ringo Starr, Shakira, Claudia Schiffer, and Julio Iglesias. Note that stashing one's money in offshore accounts is not inherently illegal—unless the stasher is engaged in tax evasion. Maybe these folks just think their money would enjoy the warm weather in Panama or the Cayman Islands rather than being stuck in a freezing bank vault in New York during a cold Northeast blizzard.

The less-well-covered angle, but the one that is of interest to us, is the domestic political angle. Since one of Joe Biden's many campaign planks was greater transparency in the manner in which global finance is conducted, a lot of outlets are declaring this to be a huge black eye for him. To take one example, from many, The Guardian (UK) writes: "The disclosures will be a major embarrassment for the U.S. president, Joe Biden." We're not really buying that voters are going to take him to task for failing to reinvent the global financial system in his 9 months in office, but we submit it for your consideration.

That does not mean that the leak will not prompt some action in Washington, however. This week, most likely Reps. John Curtis (R-UT) and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) are expected to introduce the ENABLERS Act, which would bring the U.S. into line with most other major economic powers, requiring lawyers, investment advisers, art dealers, realtors, accountants, PR firms and others to engage in "due diligence" to make certain they're not being used to launder dirty money (U.S. banks are already subject to this requirement). Needless to say, we all know how tough it is for legislation to get through the Senate these days, and how very much the Republicans in the Senate, in particular, enjoy clamping down on the business interests. Still, maybe this will go somewhere. If it does, that could bring an end to the Trump Organization's last real source of income. They don't look too carefully at the paperwork when someone signs a long-term lease on office space, or purchases a condo, as long as the purchaser's money is green.

Perhaps most interesting, and possibly most impactful, is the news at the state level. Specifically, it's now clear that a number of U.S. states have developed quite a lucrative trade in stashing money and not asking questions. As in, the moneyed folks no longer speak of "Swiss bank accounts" as much as they speak of "Nevada bank accounts" or "Idaho bank accounts." This certainly could produce some anomalous political behavior in the future, in the same way that Democratic politicians from Delaware (which has also gotten into the money-stashing business) tend to be very sympathetic to corporations, since so many corporations are chartered in their home state.

There's also the significant possibility of corruption. It turns out that the #1 state in the country for hiding money, and very possibly the #1 destination in the whole world is...South Dakota. According to the leaked documents, there is close to $400 billion squirreled away there. This is in a state whose annual budget is less than $5 billion. Do you think that, just maybe, the folks who run South Dakota are taking a few cues from the finance industry? Actually, it's already well known that most of the laws governing financial services in that state were written by...lobbyists for the financial services industry. And, of course, Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD), who has not shown herself to be a paragon of ethical behavior, has national political aspirations.

We shall see what comes of all of this, but it certainly appears to be a story that is much larger than the somewhat limited attention it's getting from U.S. media. (Z)

TrumpWorld Legal Blotter, Part I: Georgia

Based on the questions we get for the Saturday Q&A, some readers are wondering why it's taking so long to put the (legal) wood to Donald Trump. The wheels of justice turn slowly, but they do turn. And so it is in Georgia, where the Trump case is approaching a boiling point, and may soon move to the front burner.

One might guess that Georgia, given that it's run by people who are openly conspiring to steal future elections, might sweep the alleged crime of the former president—that he illegally tried to influence last year's election outcome—under the rug. The problem for Trump is that the state has at least a few Republicans with integrity, starting with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The even bigger problem is that the lead in investigating the whole situation is being taken by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat who is not answerable to the Georgia state legislature, and who does not take her cues from Trump.

Not much is actually known about Willis' investigation, since she—as prosecutors are wont to do—is playing it close to the vest. However, it is clear that she and her team are working diligently on the matter. Further, the Brookings Institution put together a 100-plus-page report collecting all of the publicly known evidence against Trump. It is safe to assume that Willis has all of that, plus stuff that's not available to the folks at Brookings. The DA is also cooperating with the House's 1/6 Commission.

And speaking of the federal government, the Justice Department has also been taking a long look at what happened in Georgia. Willis has actually complained that Raffensperger has been slow to provide certain information that she wants. The feds have a low tolerance for that sort of thing, and more tools to utilize. So, they may help Willis out, or they may just work entirely on their own. Either way, it's not usually a good thing to be the target of both a state-level and federal-level investigation at the exact same time, for the exact same thing.

None of this means anything, of course, until Trump is—at very least—indicted. Only a few people know when and if that will happen, and they're not talking. The person who is talking, however, is Trump himself, who insists on making the authorities' lives easier by continuing to peddle the "Georgia was stolen from me" conspiracy theory. It's going to be pretty easy to get a jury to believe that Trump tried to pressure Raffensperger, even if the prosecution just limits itself to Trump's own public pronouncements. (Z)

TrumpWorld Legal Blotter, Part II: Rudy

As long as we're on the Trump legal beat, let's also check in with Rudolph William Louis "Rudy" Giuliani, "America's (Former) Mayor." While the wheels of justice are also turning slowly in his case(s), the peripheral evidence is building that he is in deep, deep trouble.

First of all, keep in mind that, given his willingness to take bullets for Donald Trump, Giuliani may actually have more exposure than even his former puppetmaster does. To wit:

So, it looks rather grim for ol' Rudy. And contributing to that are the externalities that are visible for all to see. His friends—yes, apparently he has some—have put together a fund where people can donate toward Giuliani's legal bills. The main selling point for the fund is that it's endorsed by Alan Dershowitz, whose turn to the dark side is now complete. Meanwhile, Fox News has banned Giuliani from its airwaves, and Trump has cast him aside, as Trump always does with lackeys who are no longer useful.

And that brings us to the ultimate significance of all of this. Since Giuliani has been defanged by being cast out from MAGA paradise—rendered impotent, if you will—he's not really of much significance anymore. He could make a comeback, Corey Lewandowski-style, but we doubt it. However, as someone who is apparently in desperate straits, and who seems to have little left to lose, and who is known for being hot-tempered and easily provoked, he is an absolutely prime candidate to flip on Trump and to reveal whatever it is that he knows. So, in the end, this is really a second item about Trump's legal woes, and not a first item about Giuliani's. (Z)

This Week's 2022 Candidacy News

There was so much last week that we needed to cover that we were not able to run this feature, which usually appears on Fridays. Thanks to that, there is a backlog. So, we're going to give some news on House races today, and then on Friday we'll do U.S. Senate, state governors, etc.

That's the latest in six of the 435 House races. Again, we'll get to some of the interesting developments in other races on Friday. (Z)

Results Are in from California

No, this is not an Arizona situation, where the votes were counted, and counted again, and counted a third time, leaving us with news stories about the "final" tally nearly a year after the election took place. California, being a liberal state, set a liberal deadline for people's votes to be counted in the recall election. That deadline has now passed, and so the final tally is known, excepting possible slight adjustments as various localities finalize their results. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) will, of course, keep his job. He finishes with 7,903,603 votes to keep (62.0%) and 4,851,941 votes to recall (38.0%). One can scarcely imagine a more complete vindication.

There still remain two storylines here, however. The first is that while there is general agreement that recalls should remain an option, and also that the process should be reformed, there is some significant difference of opinion on specifics. In particular, many people—within the California legislature and without—believe that future recalls should require some verifiable claim of malfeasance or misconduct. Sounds reasonable, but that would almost certainly have the same outcome as getting rid of recalls altogether, since the claim of malfeasance or misconduct would end up in court, and would take vast amounts of time to adjudicate. Almost certainly, the next election would arrive before the matter was settled.

The second storyline, meanwhile, is that the polls of the race...weren't too good. Yes, they largely predicted that Newsom was safe by a wide margin. If we consider polls taken in the last six weeks before the election, he was up by an average of 11.3 points. If we limit ourselves only to the week before the election, he was up by an average of 14.6 points. If we limit ourselves to his very best poll, he was projected to win by 19 points. He actually won by 24, which means that most pollsters were off by 10 points or more.

What happened here? Some obvious theories suggest themselves:

In any case, although it's not getting much attention—we couldn't find a single story about it—it's another reminder that polling's become an extra-tricky thing these days, given increased vote-by-mail in some places (and, presumably, increased voting restrictions in others). It also illustrates that not all inaccurate polls are wrong because they overstate Democratic support. In this case, at least, it was Republican support that was grossly exaggerated. (Z)

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