October 7, 2013

Kevin Drum sort of got to this yesterday, and I’ve seen some others mention it, but I think it’s easy for those who don’t normally focus on the budget process to miss why “clean CR” is such an important idea. What’s going on is that Republicans are essentially charging admission — that is, policy concessions — as a price for beginning negotiations on the budget. Democrats are right to refuse.

Here’s how Drum put it:

A month ago, Democrats might have shrugged over the device tax. Today, they know perfectly well what it would mean to let it go. It means that when the debt ceiling deadline comes up, there will be yet another demand. When the 6-week CR is up, there will be yet another. If and when appropriations bills are passed, there will be yet another. We’ve already seen the list. There simply won’t be any end to the hostage taking. As their price for not blowing up the country, there will be an unending succession of short-term CRs and short-term debt limit extensions used as leverage for picking apart Obamacare—and everything else Democrats care about—piece by piece.

If we were talking about a full year spending package (either proper appropriations bills or a year-long CR), then in my view at least it would be totally reasonable for Republicans to be asking for specific things. Now, that doesn’t mean they would get them; the nature of negotiations is that you usually ask for more than you expect, and settle for something less than that. If we were talking about a full year spending package, Democrats, too, would have demands. We could then debate which side was being unreasonable; it might be difficult to judge.

But that’s not what’s going on now. We’re talking about a short-term measure to keep the government open while the two sides negotiate the full-year spending bill(s). There’s a very strong logic in favor of a norm of keeping the status quo intact during that interim period.

Granted: what counts as “status quo” can be tricky, but that’s the battle that Republicans already won when Democrats agreed to sequestration spending levels in the “clean” CR.

Moreover, if it’s reasonable to expect a strong shift in one direction — say, if there’s been an intervening election that made one side much stronger — then preserving the status quo in the short term can, if the short term is extended indefinitely, become a de facto win for the side that would be expected to give ground in proper negotiations. But that’s not the case this time around.

This explains the debate over negotiations that’s going on right now. Remember: Republicans never passed full-year appropriations bills out of the House. In lieu of that, it would be totally reasonable for them to ask for negotiations while passing a short-term CR to keep the government open until a bargain can be reached. Instead, however, what they’re really doing is basically charging admission (that is, policy concessions) for getting to negotiations in the first place. And that’s something that Democrats are correct to deny them.

Essentially, Democrats have two reasonable responses to Republican demands on the short-term CR. Either they can continue what they’re doing now, and refuse negotiations altogether — or, they should make a counter-offer, making clear that if Republicans expect a price for entering into negotiations, then both sides should be paying.

But really, Republicans should just cut it out, let the government open (and the debt limit go up) and then start real bargaining over the 2014 budget. They might even find, if they entered into honest negotiations, that they might be able to get some things they wanted.