MANCHESTER — Congress will reach a short-term agreement to restart the government and raise the debt ceiling, but hope for a long-term solution rests with constituents in key Republican districts, who could tell their representatives in Congress to keep up the fight against Obamacare in town hall meetings during the upcoming recess.
J.D. Foster, deputy chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told local business representatives on Wednesday that the impact of those anticipated town hall meetings in "safe" Republican districts cannot overestimated.
"Will the hard right be as adamant as they were?" he said. "That's really up to the voters and the people in those districts. Will they say, 'Yes. Go back and keep up the fight. You did the right thing,' or will they say 'We got nothing; let's try a different path.' "
Foster was the keynote speaker at the annual economic forecast hosted by the N.H. Business and Industry Association. His forecast for steady but slow growth in the next three to four years was consistent with estimates provided by other economists in local forums recently, but the elephant in the room was the shutdown and debt ceiling debate, which he addressed immediately.
Conflict, even impasse, have always been part of debates in Congress over spending and debt, he told the audience of about 50 BIA members, but that model has fallen apart amid deep-rooted opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
Normally, budget fights in Congress revolve around two things, he said, how much are we going to spend, and how deep will we go into debt.
"But now we have a third axis," he said, "Obamacare. The opponents understand that the longer it stays in place, the more likely it will remain. So there is this fight to the death that is not connected to spending or the debt limit."
Foster said the legislative process has ground to a halt amid partisan gridlock. Obamacare opponents have chosen the funding resolution and debt ceiling to "make their fight" because the usual path is not available.
"Congress is so polarized. There is no legislation, he said, referring to the fact that Congress has been unable for years to pass a budget, and the House GOP leadership could not put a bill together to resolve the current crisis that its own members would support.
A lot is riding on town meetings in the last part of the year, after a short-term deal is struck, he said. Contentious town meetings in the summer 2009, when the Tea Party blossomed, set the stage for the current impasse and will be a major factor in how events unfold in 2014.
He said Republican representatives from districts drawn to provide a safe majority do not necessarily care about public opinion beyond that district.
"They just listen to their folks," he said, so what those folks say takes on enormous importance. Whether they have been sobered by recent events, or emboldened, remains to be seen. Without a change of heart among the Tea Party faithful, "We'll get through the next few days, not have a default, and then start the whole thing over again," Foster said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most active lobbying organizations in Washington, has not objected to the attempt to link legislative objectives to the debt and spending measures, but it has pushed for a resolution.
"We have not taken sides for or against a clean spending or debt ceiling bill," he said. "But we have emphasized the importance of funding the government and insisted that the debt ceiling be raised. We must have a spending bill. We must raise the debt ceiling."firstname.lastname@example.org