Why the debt limit doomsayers might be wrong

September 25, 2013

Congressional leaders in the Oval Office. They even disagree about the apples.
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

The fate of the “Continuing Resolution” to temporarily fund the government remains uncertain.  At the same time, a battle looms over raising the nation’s debt limit.  Ezra Klein has suggested that the prospects for a deal look even worse today than they did in the summer of 2011 when the parties waged war over how to raise the debt ceiling and at what price.

Klein’s argument is (as always) nuanced, but boils down to the following: Leaders secured a deal in 2011 because they were able to seize a zone of agreement between the two parties; today, there is no zone to be seized.  As Klein sums it up, “There is, quite literally, no shared ground for a deal.”  The parties disagree on whether to negotiate, as well as on the outcomes of any such deal.

Brian Beutler at Salon has taken the “debt limit freakout caucus” to task.  But I think there’s more to be said about “zones of agreement” and whether they are necessary for making legislative deals.  Klein is of course correct about the wide gulf between the parties:  Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal’s standard measures of partisan polarization (which capture lawmakers’ policy views and partisan strategy) show no overlap between the political parties.  Still, I think we risk overestimating the odds of breaching the debt ceiling if we focus on zones of policy agreement. An alternative view of deal-making does not eliminate uncertainty about whether the parties will reach an agreement to raise the debt limit.  But it does suggest that the prospects for a deal might be stronger than we might otherwise expect based on policy grounds alone.

 

Some thoughts, culled from ongoing project with Frances Lee:

First, policy and politics are always intertwined.  This means that deal making is not merely a matter of finding the ideological sweet spot between competing coalitions.  Instead, common ground is typically a joint function of policy views and political calculation.  Such calculations are multifaceted.  Lawmakers must justify any deals to active supporters back home, knowing that their constituents are unlikely to know what is possible or not in Congress.  Lawmakers also worry about their reputations: They will not necessarily vote for a deal that they support on policy grounds if the vote could harm their public image.  And vice versa: Lawmakers might support a deal that they object to on policy grounds if their support would be helpful to their image.  Party reputations also influence the chances of a deal, particularly if individual lawmakers stand to benefit electorally from a favorable party image that might result from reaching agreement.  With policy and politics so tightly intertwined, parties can reach a deal even without an overlapping set of policy views.  A zone of agreement might be neither necessary nor sufficient for generating a legislative agreement.

Second, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the jurisdiction of Congress is essentially universal.  As former Rep. Barney Frank has said, “anything can be the basis for a deal.”  If competing coalitions have different priorities, adding each element to a deal provides different lawmakers with alternative reasons to support a deal.  Granted, the White House’s stated unwillingness to negotiate over the debt limit complicates a strategy that capitalizes on crafting a deal from parties’ divergent priorities. Even so, the March deal on raising the debt limit is suggestive: Republicans agreed to suspend the debt limit so long as the Senate passed a budget.  Coupling different priorities became the basis for a deal– even in the absence of shared policy ground.

Third, even a party’s decision about whether to negotiate is driven by politics.  Party leaders inevitably ask: Which party will suffer more politically if a deal is not done?  Anticipation of losing the public blame game can drive partisans to the table, even when they disagree about policy.  Senate GOP disagreement over whether to risk shutting down the government over funding for Obamacare is a good example.  Deals become possible even in the absence of a zone of agreement if the political costs of saying no are too steep.  Whether House GOP leaders can convince sufficient numbers of their rank and file to support a clean CR on those grounds remains to be seen, but is likely.

Finally, I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that deal-making in Congress is inherently dynamic.  Spatial models in political science typically offer a snapshot of legislative decision making, in part because we assume that lawmakers’ policy preferences are fixed.  But once we focus on both policy and political bases for a deal, the process seems remarkably fluid.  How party leaders and their rank and file come to judge the political costs of failure (here, shutting down government or defaulting on the nation’s debt)  ultimately shapes the chances for a deal.  To be sure, such calculations do not inexorably lead to legislative deals, as the uncertain fate of immigration reform suggests. Still, the politics of blame might prove more important than shared policy ground in guiding the parties to a debt ceiling agreement this fall.

Sarah Binder is a professor of political science at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has authored or co-authored four books on legislative politics, and she has a mild obsession with congressional rules, the history of Congress, and the Fed.
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