Washington on Thursday saw the consequences of running the country by apocalyptic threat: At some point, the nation’s leaders might let the apocalypse happen.

The Capitol (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
The Capitol (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Politicians can’t agree, so they have resorted to extraordinary strategies to force action. Republicans have threatened government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs and debt defaults to make demands on the budget and on Obamacare. Senate Democrats have repeatedly threatened to use the nuclear option — that is, changing filibuster rules without any buy-in from the GOP minority — to convince Republicans to stop unreasonably blocking President Obama’s nominees. Sometimes the party making the threat has been wrong. Sometimes the party goading the other into making the threat has been wrong.

Though the potential consequences of following through on these threats have varied in severity, it often seemed impossible that the party that needed to back down — usually the GOP — would stand on its belligerence rather than sue for compromise. But the more the nation’s leaders operate under the threat of major consequences to do things as fundamental as passing a budget, confirming qualified nominees or declining to defund something, the more likely it is that they will trigger those major consequences. Some will figure that the results won’t actually be so bad. Some won’t want to take heat from the base for cooperating with the other party. Some will figure that different people will have to keep bad outcomes from happening. And some will simply get their backs up.

The country already saw this in last month’s partial government shutdown. Republicans made good on their silly threat to close down federal operations if the Democrats didn’t defund Obamacare. Part of the reason, no doubt, was pent up anger that previous threats hadn’t resulted in the concessions they demanded.

On Thursday, the Democrats changed the Senate forever because the GOP wouldn’t stop abusing the filibuster, even against the threat of “nuclear” retaliation.

The good news is that, at least to date, Republicans haven’t followed through on the gravest threat either side has made — to let the government default. The bad news is that there doesn’t seem to be any end to the threatmaking. Even if the GOP never forces default, Washington should know by now that the system could slip off the edge in other ways. Governing by crisis is risky, expensive, harmful to people’s trust in their leaders and awful for policymaking.

Government must be more than just a recurring game of chicken. Voters seem to get that. But until they punish politicians who refuse to behave under normal circumstances, they won’t get much else.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.