Thursday, January 10, 2013

Brown M&Ms

In 1982, and nearing the height of their powers, Van Halen embarked on a world tour that included a now famous contract “rider” provision. Specifically, arenas where the band played were required to provide M&M candy, but no brown M&Ms[1].  Why did the band include this quirky request? I am not sure, but I guess they did it for one simple reason – they could; because they knew they were in a strong negotiating position with any venue they chose to play and so, to prove their dick swung powerfully, some poor minimum wage slob in Grand Rapids had to sift through M&M bags, purging brown ones so a candy dish that probably went untouched was in compliance with the band’s terms of service.

Van Halen’s negotiating ploy will look familiar to anyone who has ever bargained over the floor mats in their new car or a credit on a home closing because there was some imperfection in the house they were about to move into. So long as one party is willing to stop a deal from happening and the other party is willing to put some price on it, anything is negotiable. In Washington, this point has been driven home most recently on two of the issues of the day – raising the debt ceiling and who President Obama appoints to his Cabinet.

Until Barack Obama became President, raising the nation’s borrowing limit had been a largely uncontroversial undertaking. While the debt limit itself may be an historical anomaly, the concept behind it is not – if the nation borrows money, it must pay it back. In the post-World War II era, the debt ceiling has been raised under every President since Eisenhower, including Ronald Reagan (18 times!) and George W. Bush, who raised the debt ceiling 7 times, including three times in a roughly 1 year period between late 2007 and 2008[2]. Congress simply passed a law allowing for additional borrowing authority because no one thought to jeopardize the full faith and credit of the United States over authorization to pay bills already incurred.

That was, until 2011, when the Republican majority in the House of Representatives decided that any new borrowing authority would need to be tied to spending cuts. Why did they do this? The short answer, like the “brown M&Ms rider,” seems to be “because they could.” These born again deficit scolds raised no such objections to borrowing when George W. Bush was President but they smartly realized they could achieve policy goals (cutting discretionary domestic spending) through alternative means (refusing to increase the debt ceiling) when a Democrat became President. And succeed they did. In order to get an increase in our borrowing authority, the Republicans extracted $1 trillion in future spending cuts from the President. In other words, they made Obama pick out the brown M&Ms. Never mind the fact that it was not normative behavior, because what is “normal” does not matter when one party is willing to change the rules and the other party does not object.

Similarly, two of the President’s recent Cabinet announcements, Republican former Senator Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary and current White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew as Treasury Secretary have been met with skepticism by Senate Republicans. It’s not that either man is unqualified, but rather, that Republicans don’t particularly care for their policy views, suggesting a new standard for high level Cabinet appointments. Hagel’s major sins appear to be going against the Bush Administration when Iraq went south, and endorsing two Democrats, Barack Obama for President in 2008 and Bob Kerrey for Senate in 2012. Lew’s offense is even more absurd – he’s a good negotiator. Republicans don’t like Lew because he served as a staffer in Congress and under two Presidents as Director of the Office of Management & Budget and therefore, knows how our budget operates and attempts to cut deals in his side’s favor. Oh, the humanity.

In comparison, George W. Bush appointed a former CEO of Goldman Sachs as Treasury Secretary who was acclaimed by voice vote and nominated his National Security Adviser, who left a video trail a mile long of erroneous statements about Iraq’s weapons programs in her wake, as Secretary of State, and she was confirmed 85-13. When Obama hinted he might select Susan Rice to that same job, a single appearance on a single Sunday talk show about a matter she was not even involved with where she repeated information provided to her by the CIA (which turned out to be largely correct) was met with such fierce Republican opposition, she withdrew her name from consideration. In other words, both sides do not do it (obstruct), but rather, one side (the GOP) has decided that because it can obstruct, it will.

Of course, just as arenas were free to *not* sign the Van Halen rider, the President and Democrats have been free to not give into the new normal in Washington but have refused to do so. This must end. Democrats must snuff out the idea that “hostage taking” on things that were once pro forma is now acceptable. To do so, they must stop playing the game. So, on the debt ceiling this means not negotiating, period, over threats by Republicans to not raise the nation’s borrowing authority unless additional cuts to the budget are included. This means sending a bill to the House requesting an extension of the debt ceiling (or better yet, a law that rescinds Congress’s power to set or raise it) and dare Republicans not to move on it. If we default, well, so be it, because the alternative is to turn every increase in the debt ceiling into a hostage negotiation. Indeed, Speaker Boehner has floated the idea of extending the debt ceiling monthly, which would cause total paralysis in Washington, not to mention uncertainty in the economy.

Similarly, if Senate Democrats and the President want to cow Republican obstruction, they must reform the Senate rules in ways that still respect the rights of the minority party, but does not allow that minority to be the tail that wags the dog. One would think the Democrats would have learned that lesson already, after Republicans set all-time records for filibuster use in each succeeding Congress since 2007 or when Obama’s judicial nominees were confirmed at a slower rate than any other modern day President, or when Republicans stooped to filibuster minor appointments, such as that of the U.S. Public Printer, but that does not appear to be true. Senator Jeff Merkley and others have advocated for reform that would, among other things, force a “talking filibuster” on opponents of legislation and expedite the appointment process. These changes should be adopted immediately both to ensure smoother functioning of government and to send a clear message that obstruction no longer pays. Lastly, media tropes that frame things like debt ceiling extensions and Cabinet appointments, which were once unexceptional, into the latest skirmishes in the partisan war need to be called out for what they are – lazy and false.

If Democrats fail to stand up to these extortionist tactics, they will be picking a lot of brown M&Ms out of the bag for the next four years.




  1. Van Halen added the brown M&Ms clause to their contracts because they had a very detailed stage set up. If they found the brown M&Ms they knew that the promoter or venue didn't follow through on the contract and might not have followed through on the stage set up as well.

    1. Anonymous #1 is correct. If the stage setup was not correct, it could have been life threatening to the band and the audience. Details matter.

    2. Eh, there may be some truth to that, but if you read the entire rider, there are numerous other random things in there related to booze and food that would tend to suggest it wasn't all about the stage set up.