Funding Washington’s brinksmanship addiction


House Majority Leader Eric Cantor pulled out of U.S. debt ceiling discussions with Vice President Biden last week over the issues of taxes. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with Post columnist Steven Pearlstein and five expert contributors — Governor Mitch Daniels, former Senate leader Tom Daschle, Harvard professor John P. Kotter, former Congressman Slade Gorton and Wharton professor Stuart Diamond — about the leadership issues at the core of the U.S. debt debacle.

Let’s start with the sense of urgency that leadership requires, but that our political leaders seem to lack, in the matter of reaching a budget and debt-ceiling deal. The debt ceiling has now been reached, we are six weeks away from a drop-dead deadline and a potential global financial crisis, and for most of the top leadership in Washington, it’s just business as usual.

Yes, President Obama has scheduled some meetings with congressional leaders this week and, yes, the Biden working group met a handful of times last week leading up to the breakdown in talks. Then again, in the three weeks prior, there had been only the occasional conclave. Why? Because either the House or the Senate were in recess.

I don’t know about you, but to me it hardly reinforces the urgency of this issue when key members of Congress can’t stay in Washington to deal with it because it would interfere with the sixth congressional recess scheduled so far this year. If the issues involved here are as important as all the political leaders claim, then why isn’t this a 10-hour-a-day, 6-day-a-week marathon to nail down an agreement? Why is the president still running around the country holding fundraisers on Wall Street and visiting yet another “green” factory? And why haven’t members of Congress been told that they’ll be spending the July 4 holiday right here in Washington—and every day thereafter—until the necessary deal is hammered out?

Certainly that is what leaders would do if they were trying to prepare the country politically to make some painful sacrifices and accommodations in the years ahead. And it is certainly what political leaders would do if they wanted to prepare members of their own parties in Congress to take tough votes and make unpleasant compromises. People are more willing to make these sacrifices and compromises only when they are convinced that everything possible was done to avoid them. For some reason, however, this theatrical aspect to leadership seems to be totally lost on the current generation of political leaders.


Steven Pearlstein is a Pulitizer Prize-winning business and economics columnist for The Washington Post.

The problem is that this generation of political leaders has become addicted to brinksmanship. If all that matters is for your side to “win” and if the best way to win is to threaten to blow up the global economy unless you get your way, then of course you don’t fly off to Camp David with a promise not to return until a deal is at hand. What you do is play rope-a-dope for as long you can, then declare that the talks have reached an impasse, you’re not willing to give another inch and walk away. The hope is that the other side eventually caves out of a sense of responsibility for the general welfare. In this game of brinksmanship, the idea is to demonstrate you are willing to be more irresponsible than the other guy, which is the level to which political leadership in American has now degenerated.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say the Republicans are more to blame for this sad state of affairs. There’s plenty to criticize in how President Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress have handled budget issues—the refusal to pass a budget and raise the debt ceiling last year, the refusal to embrace the recommendations of a bi-partisan deficit reduction commission, the lack of support for the Senate’s “Gang of Six,” to name just a few. But it is the Republican leaders who have really embraced and perfected the brinksmanship strategy in recent years, whether it be on health care, financial regulation, taxes or the deficit, leaving Democrats no choice but to adopt it as well. 

Americans have always liked the idea of divided government, with one party holding the other in check. It’s a lovely notion, but it only works as long as the leaders of both parties accept joint responsibility for how things turn out, which has been the case for most of our history. When that sense of joint responsibility breaks down however, divided government can be disastrous. And that’s pretty much where we are today.

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics.
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