America needs a grand bargain. But not on the budget.

October 11, 2013

A grand bargain is absolutely necessary, but not to negotiate temporary terms to reopen the federal government or raise the nation's debt ceiling. We need a grand bargain for democracy.


Congress, you're doing a terrible job. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomber)

We need President Obama and Congress to agree to take off the table the partisan war’s new weapons of mass destruction – government shutdowns, threats of public default and sequesters. Hostage-taking to gain unilateral concessions not achievable through ordinary bargaining and putting in place automatic, indiscriminate spending cuts in the absence of budget agreements diminish our democracy and imperil our economy. The world looks with bewilderment and fear at the ability and willingness of a minority to thwart majority rule to achieve its ideological objectives whatever the costs. Our problems of deficits and debt pale compared with the damage being done to our democracy, our capacity to govern and our standing in the world.

Calling the current Washington machinations "hostage-taking," “extortion” or "political terrorism" incites the Republicans. They claim the rhetoric is out of bounds and inflammatory. In the passion to defend their actions, Republicans have failed to consider what their own reaction would be if the shoe were on the other foot. Imagine a hypothetical on health care (similar to one that our colleague, Ben Wittes, recently offered on Lawfare Blog):

It's 2007. Democrats have just taken control of Congress, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the House. President George W. Bush requests a debt ceiling increase from Capitol Hill. Seeing an opening, Pelosi makes a specific demand: "Under no circumstances will the debt ceiling be lifted unless Congress passes and the president signs a bill providing universal health coverage to Americans, a ban on preexisting conditions and an individual mandate to purchase insurance to avoid the  adverse selection problem." She draws a line in the sand and argues that the number of uninsured people presents an economic, political, social and public health threat to the nation that is far greater than the government defaulting on its debt. She even questions whether a default is real.

If you are a Republican, ask yourself how you would react to Pelosi's threat. Would you think, "Good for her, she's a tough negotiator"? Would you concede, "That's part of bargaining, and the president needs to relent"? No. Her behavior would be slammed. She would be accused of hostage-taking or political terrorism. And that criticism would be deserved.

But Pelosi — despite having serious reservations about the path of public policy under Bush — never made a serious, dire or credible threat to the nation's full faith and credit to bargain for unrelated legislation. Why? That specific threat of bullying legislation jeopardizes the fundamentals of American democracy and the functioning of a market system.

Too often, political opponents fail to consider what would happen if they were placed in the other party's position. We guarantee, if Democratic congressional leaders were behaving in the same way as their Republican counterparts are right now, the GOP rhetoric would not be tame or conciliatory.

What is the path forward?

The grand bargain for American democracy must be comprehensive. It would have both parties, as an essential first step, immediately and unconditionally reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.  The former could be accomplished if the House passed the CR, whose spending terms were originally set by Speaker John Boehner and has already passed the Senate.  The latter must be accompanied by a credible commitment never again to use the debt ceiling as a nuclear bargaining chip. Congress should delegate to the president the authority to raise the debt limit as needed by Treasury to pay the bills already authorized by law, subject of course to a resolution of disapproval by the Congress and, as provided for in the Constitution, a presidential veto and congressional override. The next essential step is for Congress through normal bipartisan negotiations to replace sequestration, in a deficit-neutral way, with a series of well-considered, properly-phased spending cuts and revenue increases.  This would be a part of the bill or bills that provide funding for the rest of the fiscal year, not the current offer of six weeks of funding.

The problem with six-week “fixes” for government funding or debt ceiling increases is that they are not real solutions. They are the problem. They do not end political and economic hostage-taking. They simply provide a regular schedule of crises, and additional outlets for destructive demands from House Republicans. Any fix must be long-term and include both a CR and debt ceiling raise.

Once these essential tasks are completed, there is ample time and scope through the normal legislative process to consider serious improvements in the Affordable Care Act, additional steps to deal with the long-term costs of an aging society and growing health care costs, and a reform of the tax code.  None of these efforts should be pursued under manufactured crises and unprecedented threats of serious damage to the country and to world markets.

Republicans must resist their ongoing temptation to institutionalize this hostage-taking behavior, and realize that someday, they may be the hostages. This behavior sets a dangerous precedent for future negotiations with future presidents. Threatening the full faith and credit of the United States because of Obamacare may somehow seem a righteous and strategic approach now. Yet, Republicans will regret these days if four or eight or twelve years from now, the tides are turned and President Christie or President Walker or President Jindal face such political extortion. The current Republican shenanigans are not simply a challenge to President Obama; they are a challenge to the presidency and every man and woman who holds the office in the future.

To the extent Republicans are serious about repealing Obamacare and sharply cutting the size and scope of government, they must recognize that shutting down the government and threatening the nation’s credit are not viable options. They must wake up to the fact that winning elections at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will provide the basis for achieving their objectives in a constitutionally prescribed manner. Control of one chamber in a bicameral legislature with a separation of powers system does not a government make.  It’s time to drop the threats and fight the good fight the old-fashioned way, either by persuading their colleagues in government with whom they share power or by replacing those colleagues with others who share their views, in the White House and both houses of Congress.

Should Republicans bargain hard and compete with Democrats and the president? Yes. Should the debt ceiling and funding for an array of government services be the place for that bargaining? Absolutely not. Republican actions hurt President Obama, but that is not the GOP concern. These actions could hurt a future (Republican) president, but that should not be the GOP concern. These actions hurt the ability of our democracy to function, our markets to remain stable, and our government to operate, and that is not the concern of a single party, but of all Americans.

John Hudak and Thomas Mann are in the governance studies project at the Brookings Institute. This piece also appears on their blog, Fix Gov.

Update: An earlier version of this post misspelled Hudak's name

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