The oddest thing about the chatter in Washington about the coming debt ceiling crisis is that it sidesteps the most important thing about it. I’m talking about the fact that the leadership in both parties agrees that the debt limit will be raised in the end, yet we’re all supposed to act as if the coming confrontation gives one side some sort of leverage, anyway.

That the debt limit will be raised is a foregone conclusion — both sides agree it will certainly happen — yet one party is currently consumed in debate over what to demand in exchange for agreeing to the inevitable.

Today, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner indicating that the debt limit will not be breached until after Labor Day. In the letter, Lew reiterates: “We will not negotiate over the debt limit.” And he patiently spells out the basic facts about the debt limit and why it’s absurd for Republicans not to agree to raise it in the quest to leverage more spending cuts:

It is important to note that increasing the debt limit does not increase spending or authorize new spending; rather, it simply permits the United States  to continue to honor pre-existing commitments to our citizens, businesses,  and investors here and around the world. These commitments were already  approved by Congress, and honoring them is not optional. The global economic  leadership position enjoyed by the United States rests on the confidence of Americans and people around the world that we are a nation that keeps its  promises and pays all of its bills, in full and on time. Breaching that trust  would do irreparable harm to the economy and the American public.

Guess who agrees with this? The House GOP leadership, that’s who. Republican leaders have already confirmed, publicly and on the record, that they won’t allow default, for precisely the reasons Lew spells out above. John Boehner recently said this: “I’m not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government.”

What’s more, Lori Montgomery reports that in a closed door meeting of House Republicans this week, most of them agreed that they would not block the debt limit hike and allow the government to default on its obligations. As one GOP aide told Montgomery, the “Hell no” caucus has substantially diminished since last time.

And yet, in that same closed door meeting, Republicans engaged in intense debate over what they should demand in exchange for agreeing to what they already know they’re going to agree to. Suggestions ranged from demanding entitlement cuts to insisting on approval of Keystone XL to (of course) Obamacare repeal. But they couldn’t agree on what to ask for.

This is particularly insane right at this particular moment. As Steve Benen puts it: “The deficit is already shrinking with remarkable speed; the last GOP debt-ceiling crisis did real harm to the nation; GOP leaders have ruled out default; and Republican lawmakers themselves don’t even have anything specific in mind in terms of demands.”

On top of this, the entire confrontation is itself make believe. Republican leaders aren’t going to allow default, yet we are all supposed to pretend the looming debt limit gives them leverage, anyway. Why? Because this charade is necessary in order to figure out a way to make it possible for House conservatives to get to Yes. Indeed, making this even more absurd, John Boehner has actually admitted this to be the case. As he put it recently to reporters, all of these internal debates are only about figuring out the answer to this question: “what do our members believe is necessary to allow them to vote yes on increasing the debt limit?”

As Jonathan Bernstein put it the other day, many conservatives don’t even know what they want in exchange for holding the debt limit ransom; they just know they want a hostage crisis — or “extortion for extortion’s sake.” This is the ultimate in manufactured crises — created solely to allow House conservatives to play-act the bit part of extortionists in a drama whose conclusion has already been agreed upon by the main protagonists and antagonists alike.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.