The GOP’s bizarre ‘doomsday plan’

December 5, 2012

Typically, a "doomsday plan" is meant to help you survive the aftermath of doomsday. During the Cold War, for instance, the U.S. had a doomsday plan meant to protect the president and ensure the continued functioning of the U.S. government in the event of a nuclear attack. 

U.S. Air Force via Reuters

In 2005, Congress passed another doomsday plan. It was meant to ensure the legislature could conduct business in the aftermath of a terrorist attack that killed or incapacitated most of its members. The rule states that under "catastrophic circumstances," a quorum won't require 218 representatives, but rather whoever is around. 

This week, Washington is obsessed with another so-called "doomsday plan." But it's a funny kind of doomsday plan. It's not a plan meant to save the country in the event of a doomsday scenario. It's a plan meant to create a doomsday scenario in the event that Republicans have to compromise on tax rates. On Monday, ABC's Jonathan Karl explained how it would work:

Republicans are seriously considering a Doomsday Plan if fiscal cliff talks collapse entirely.  It’s quite simple:  House Republicans would allow a vote on extending the Bush middle class tax cuts (the bill passed in August by the Senate) and offer the President nothing more:  no extension of the debt ceiling, nothing on unemployment, nothing on closing loopholes.  Congress would recess for the holidays and the president would face a big battle early in the year over the debt ceiling. Two senior Republican elected officials tell me this doomsday plan is becoming the most likely scenario.  

Today, the New York Times adds more detail, including this quote from Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-TX): “There’s always better ground, but you have to get there."

In this case, the "better ground" is exchanging the threat of a congressionally induced recession for the threat of a congressionally induced global financial crisis. That's better ground?

Not for the economy, certainly. But it's also difficult to see how it's better ground for the GOP. Hill Republicans tell me that the underlying insight is that while the president can permit the economy to fall over the fiscal cliff, he can't allow a default. That gives Republicans a stronger hand, or so they think. But run the scenario out in more detail and its political risks come clear.

Later this month, Republicans would, by voting "present," permit the Bush tax cuts to expire for income over $250,000 and become permanent for income under $250,000. This would allow President Obama to bank $1 trillion in revenue and secure a win on his key priority in the talks. But nothing else would get done.

At the end of the year, we would still go over the fiscal cliff. Remember that the Bush tax cuts are one of the least stimulative policies in the negotiations. According to the Economic Policy Institute, extending the middle-class tax cuts would wipe out about 11 percent of the  fiscal cliff's economic impact. 

Come early next year, the economy would likely be entering a recession, and markets would be convulsing as they realize that an austerity crisis is about to slam into a possible default on the national debt. Poll after poll shows the Republicans receiving more blame for the possible failure of the debt talks, and after a high-profile stunt like voting "present" on the tax cuts and allowing everything else to expire, those numbers are likely to turn even more sharply against the GOP.

Meanwhile, Republicans will be threatening not just to take us over the fiscal cliff, which will already have happened, but to trigger a financial crisis by breaking through the debt ceiling. And they will be doing all of this after having lost an election. And for what? Because they want deeper Medicare cuts that they refuse to publicly specify? 

"Remember," says NBC's First Read, "the debt ceiling standoff in July 2011 was bad [for] the president, but it was worse for the GOP’s brand." A combined austerity crisis/debt ceiling standoff in 2012 is likely to be even more devastating to the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, the White House will find the negotiations easier, not harder. After all, they'll already have banked $1 trillion in tax revenue. They'd be much closer to their goal, and their offer of another $600 billion in spending cuts in return for another $600 billion in tax revenue (delivered, this time, through tax reform) will sound perfectly reasonable to most Americans.

Republicans may believe that the White House would be so afraid of default that it would simply capitulate, but my reporting suggests the opposite: The White House is utterly steadfast in its insistence that it will not permit the debt ceiling to be used as leverage against it again. White House officials see this as a matter of good governance. It would be irresponsible of them -- a breach of trust with their successors -- to permit this kind of economic brinksmanship to become the norm.

It is hard to see how this strategy gets the GOP what it wants, either substantively or politically. The doomsday they're courting might be their own.

 

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Neil Irwin · December 5, 2012