Shutdown, debt-ceiling fight: Does it take a crisis to get anything done in Washington?

If Congress refuses to act, President Obama has three last-minute options he could use to avoid a default on the nation's debt. (The Washington Post)
October 8, 2013

With no end in sight to the partial government shutdown and a potential federal default on the horizon, it would seem that brinkmanship has become Washington’s normal way of doing business.

“We already went through this once back in 2011. And then at the end of last year, right after my election, we went through something similar with the so-called fiscal cliff,” President Obama complained at his news conference Tuesday. “At some point, we’ve got to kind of break these habits.”

One of the features of politics is that it often takes a deadline and the prospect of a calamity to force hard decisions. And at a time when the two parties are so far apart on pretty much everything, that is even more the case.

“It’s a sad fact, but I think democracies find it hard to do painful things unless it is in a crisis,” said Rudolph Penner, a senior fellow at the liberal Urban Institute who headed the Congressional Budget Office during the 1980s.

And Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor who served as Obama’s first White House chief of staff, once famously remarked that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste, and what I mean by that is, it is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

But the policymaking that results from situations of panic has a mixed record of success.

The series of eleventh-hour deals that have pulled the government from the brink in the past three years have done nothing to resolve the ideological and political differences that sparked them. Instead, they have merely put both sides on course for the next fiscal cliffhanger.

What’s missing, said Alex Brill, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is that “there don’t seem to be enough options floating around in the middle to solve these problems. You have to have a bag of options.”

The Republicans’ initial demand — that Obama surrender the health-care law that stands as the chief achievement of his presidency — was guaranteed to fail. And it left both sides dug in.

Now, one question is whether the Republicans will find a way to take Obama up on his offer to resume negotiations over the nation’s long-term fiscal problems, but only if they reopen the government and lift the debt ceiling. Another is whether the sides would have anything to talk about if they do get a temporary reprieve.

“There’s going to be a negotiation here,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) vowed Tuesday. “We can’t raise the debt ceiling without doing something about what’s driving us to borrow more money and to live beyond our means.”

But as Obama noted, Boehner is making that demand at a time when the deficit is falling and Democrats have already agreed to set spending at a level demanded by the Republicans.

“We can’t afford these manufactured crises every few months,” the president said. “This one isn’t even about deficits or spending or budgets. . . . The way we got to this point was one thing and one thing only, and that was Republican obsession with dismantling the Affordable Care Act and denying health care to millions of people. That law, ironically, is moving forward.”

All of which, Penner said, lends an artificiality to the debt-limit deadline, if what the GOP wants is a deal to avert the longer-term fiscal threats posed by the increase in entitlement spending expected as baby boomers move into retirement.

“My fearless forecast is we will need a real crisis before we get serious about Social Security and Medicare,” Penner added.

Washington veterans often point to the 1983 compromise that rescued the Social Security trust fund from insolvency as an model of how the two parties can come together when they are up against a wall.

Democrats, led by Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), agreed to benefit reductions, including lifting the age of eligibility. President Ronald Reagan and the Republicans acceded to tax increases. Both sides leaned heavily on the recommendations of a commission led by future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

“The essence of bipartisanship is to give up a little to get a lot,” Reagan said when he signed the bill in April of that year, less than three months before the trust fund was expected to run out of money. “I think we’ve got a great deal.”

Later in that decade, Reagan and the Democrats again found themselves on the brink — then, as now, in a negotiation over whether to lift the debt ceiling, and one that echoes in the current situation.

Deficits in 1985 had reached the then-astounding level of more than $200 billion a year, so the Republicans and a few conservative Democrats insisted upon attaching automatic spending restraints as a condition of extending the nation’s borrowing authority.

The Gramm-Rudman Act was the first time many Americans had ever heard of a “sequester.” But unlike now, Congress and the president backed down from actually putting those automatic cuts into effect.

Ultimately, Gramm-Rudman was repealed and replaced by the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 — which actually worked better at bringing spending under control, thanks to its pay-as-you-go requirement. It stayed in effect through the 1990s, when surpluses grew to the point that those austerity measures were deemed unnecessary.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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