Thomas Sowell Tries To Prove A Falsehood (and does better than I would have expected…but still fails)

(by the way, if you’re looking for a better analysis of the causes of the shutdown, The Edge of the American West has this recent post which lays out a more convincing case than Sowell does. oh, and I apologize for the formatting. There’s something seriously wrong with this style sheet but I’m not sure exactly what and I’m not sure how to fix it.)

This piece by Thomas Sowell has been making its rounds on the Interwebs a lot lately. It’s being presented as a clear-headed, rational explanation as to why the government shutdown is the fault of the Democrats. Like most attempts to prove something that are not actually true, I’m not swayed by his argument. I am, however, impressed by his use of the forms of logic to make his argument and, because of that, I’ll spend a little time pointing out why his argument is specious rather than dismiss it out of hand.

Let me attempt to summarize Sowell’s arguments so that I can address them clearly. If I understand it correctly, his contention is that:
  1. Spending bills originate in the House.
  2. The House has offered a bill that funds all of the government except for one program.
  3. This is legal and there are precedents for this action, thus there is nothing improper about it.
  4. The Senate has rejected this spending bill because the Senate wants a bill that funds all government programs.
  5. The “clean” bill requested by the Senate is tantamount to giving Harry Reid “everything he wants,” and there is no reason the House should do that.
  6. It is, therefore, the Democrats in the Senate who are to blame for shutting down the government.
This seems reasonable on its surface, but there’s a great deal beneath the surface that undermines his argument. Let’s look at it point-by-point:
1.Spending bills originate in the House.
Well, obviously, there’s no argument here. That’s how it works. But, we’re starting from a weird place. This whole business with the “debt ceiling” is fairly novel in modern times. There was a rule in Congress that any spending that had been authorized would automatically raise the debt ceiling by whatever was required to pay for it. This rule was repealed in 1995 by the Gingrich-led Republicans, which is what gave us the strange situation we’re in. More on that in a moment, but the point I want to make is that all the government spending, even the Affordable Care Act, has already been authorized by the House. This additional hurdle is new and invites no end of mischief…
2. The House has offered a bill that funds all of the government except for one program.
…and here’s where that mischief shows up. It sounds like a small thing, but there’s a world of possibilities in that “one program,” isn’t there? Replace “Affordable Care Act” with other programs and you can see very quickly how just “one program” can be a very big deal. Medicare? Veterans Affairs? Social Security? The U.S. Army? Saying it’s just “one program” implies that it’s a very minor thing to omit, but obviously, that’s not necessarily the case.  We’ll get to how big a deal this is shortly, but for now, I just want to point out that Sowell is trying to finesse a point that doesn’t support his argument.
3. This is legal and there are precedents for this action, thus there is nothing improper about it.
Yes, this is legal. There is no question about that. There are precedents for withholding funding to create de facto legislation, but there aren’t very many that are similar to this particular situation. This maneuver is typically used in the appropriations process, wherein bills that have been passed are funded. We are well past that phase and Congress has already funded the Affordable Care Act. This is something very different and there aren’t a lot of precedents for refusing to raise the debt ceiling to pay for programs that Congress has already voted to fund. There are, in fact, two of them: 1995 and 2012. In both cases, Republican majorities in the House used the debt ceiling as a means to try to cut the overall deficit. In neither case was a single program singled out. There’s no modern precedent for using the debt ceiling to try to eliminate a single program.
4. The Senate has rejected this spending bill because the Senate wants a bill that funds all government programs.
This is true. And, in fact, there is vastly greater precedent for this stance than the one that the House is taking.
5. The “clean” bill requested by the Senate is tantamount to giving Harry Reid “everything he wants,” and there is no reason the House should do that.
This is where Sowell starts to lose the plot. He paints an unencumbered spending bill as capitulation to the Democrats. What he doesn’t mention is that the Affordable Care Act is already the result of a tremendously hard-fought compromise. It is not, and has never been everything that Harry Reid or any Democrat wants. Giving Harry Reid (or, more honestly, people like me) everything he wants would be amending the ACA to include a conversion to single-payer in 2016. The degree of misrepresentation here utterly undermines Sowell’s argument.
6. It is, therefore, the Democrats in the Senate who are to blame for shutting down the government.
Since the each of the points of the argument are either flawed, misleading, or just factually incorrect, the conclusion does not stand. I cannot read Sowell’s mind, but I suspect his instructions were similar to those of John Yoo when he wrote the infamous torture memos. I imagine that his task was not to “examine both sides of the government shutdown and determine who should shoulder the blame.” It was “find a way to justify the conclusion that we’ve already reached.”
Of course, he couldn’t let it go without sticking a hyperbolic turd on the end of what was a reasonable-seeming essay:
None of this is rocket science. But unless the Republicans get their side of the story out — and articulation has never been their strong suit — the lies will win. More important, the whole country will lose.
The whole country will lose? Really? How do you figure? Is it because, horror of horrors, a program that was created by, passed by, and funded by Congress will go into effect? A program that, and I delight in pointing this out, is popular with Republicans so long as it isn’t called “Obamacare?” Besides, Sowell and his ilk are getting the Republicans’ side of the story out; it’s just that their story isn’t convincing. The primary reason that is isn’t convincing is that it isn’t true.
It’s a thankless task, but he does an better-than-average job of at least trying to cloak a falsehood in reason.
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