NYU Law experts gather in Washington to discuss the debt ceiling and the government shutdown

In the midst of the government shutdown, a group of NYU Law experts gathered last week in Washington, D.C., to discuss the debt ceiling, the shutdown, and its potential effects on the state of the economy and politics of the United States. Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, moderated a panel that included former White House Counsel Bob Bauer, distinguished scholar in residence and senior lecturer at NYU Law; Sean Cairncross ’01, partner at HoltzmanVogelJosefiak and former deputy executive director and general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee; Professor David Kamin ’09, former special assistant to the president for economic policy; Professor Sally Katzen, former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget; and Michael Waldman ’87, president of the Brennan Center for Justice and former director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton. Bauer and Katzen are currently co-teaching NYU Law's new Legislative and Regulatory Process Clinic in Washington.

Sally KatzenThe panel began by comparing the current crisis to the government shutdown that took place during the Clinton presidency. “There’s a cultural change that I perceive from '95-'96 to the current time,” Katzen observed. “That comes in the guise of whether or not people are listening to the other side, whether they are speaking the same language. I don’t think they are… I think we have become much more polarized in our thinking, which has led each side to escalate the rhetoric, if nothing else… The center has literally fallen out. The most liberal Republican is still miles away from the most conservative Democrat.”

Sean Cairncross '01“When you look back at ’95 and ’96, and the shutdowns there, President Clinton had been the governor of a Republican state and had dealt with a conservative legislature. At no stage in that process, at least to my recollection, did he hold press conference and say that Newt Gingrich was holding a gun to the head of the country,” said Cairncross. “When you have a press conference and say these guys are terrorists, and this is a majority that’s gerrymandered and it’s not representative of the country, it delegitimizes a majority of the house, and it delegitimizes the views that a lot of people have tried to express to this administration about policies that they don’t agree with.”

Bob Bauer“Polarization seems to have taken root in the very political culture at large,” Bauer added. “Ordinary politics doesn’t work if every political issue is raised to the level of principle. You can’t compromise, people always say, on a matter of principle. If every political issue is immediately built—by one side or the other—into an issue of principle, then compromise becomes impossible.”

David Kamin '09Kamin, who described the tactic of using the debt ceiling as a negotiating device as a “device of destruction in the U.S. economy, and potentially the global economy,” addressed the question of why the president has not been willing to negotiate with congress. “The concern is that if we establish a continued precedent of, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats, using this as the device to force an executive order, or another house of congress to sit down with them, we could continue to have these kinds of crises again and again,” Kamin said.

Michael Waldman '87Waldman added that a key difference between the current negotiation and those during the Clinton presidency is that, in the 90s, Congress and the Senate were at least able to pass a budget that the president could veto. “The two chambers are not even working together…. There’s no ability to negotiate if there’s no ability to pass an initial budget,” Waldman said.

Fred HiattHiatt concluded the discussion by asking the panelists for their predictions for the future. “Presumably at some point the government will reopen, and at some point the United States will continue or resume paying its obligations,” Hiatt said, asking, “How do you think we get to that point?”

Cairncross offered that “it’s going to be messy… it will take some form of negotiated settlement somewhere.” Katzen suggested that there may be “ a short-term fix, in which the debt limit is raised, and the government may or may not be re-opened.”

“It’s really going to fundamentally come down to political leadership,” Bauer said. “There ought to be a deal here that’s saleable. The outlines of it are clearly present. And now the question is, is there going to be a successful display of leadership to enable the ranks to close behind this kind of an option?”

NYU Law apologizes to those who attempted to view the live feed of this event for the technical difficulties that resulted in a poor audio stream. 

Posted on October 14, 2013