Be very, very afraid.
This is my chilling, and surprising, takeaway from numerous conversations with administration officials and members of Congress over the past several days about the looming need to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling.
The chilling part is obvious. Having the government shut down, especially briefly, is stupid but survivable. (Economically, that is. The political ramifications are another matter.) We’ve been down this idiotic path before, and we may well be stumbling there again.
But leaving the government unable to borrow enough money to pay the debts it has already incurred is a different matter entirely. Breaching the debt ceiling evokes words such as “catastrophic” and “unthinkable,” which is why it has never happened.
And why the notion that it might happen is so surprising. Astonishing, actually. Washington is used to government by crisis and deadline. Our creaky system is capable of rousing itself only when the train is bearing down the tracks.
So my usual way of analyzing these moments is to reason backward: The debt ceiling must be raised. Therefore it will be. The situation will seem to be at an unbreakable stalemate until, suddenly, a solution appears. Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief — until the inevitable next act in our political psychodrama. Panic, solve, repeat.
And this could well happen in the coming showdown. Let’s hope so. But steady Washington hands worry that this time really could be different — and, remember, even edging close to default is costly.
There are four (at least) reasons to worry:
1. House Speaker John Boehner has chosen to play with fire, arguing to his colleagues that the ultimate showdown should be over raising the debt ceiling rather than extending government funding.
Boehner’s calculation appears to be twofold: that Republicans have more to lose than Democrats from a shutdown fight (you may recall that didn’t go so well for Newt Gingrich in 1995) and that Republicans will therefore have more leverage if they make their stand on the debt ceiling.
This strategy hinges on the assumption that President Obama will blink. This has some basis in reality: He’s blinked before, and blinking in the face of imminent disaster might be the prudent thing to do.
Yet the president has been asserting for months that he will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States. This attitude is a trifle ahistoric: Presidents, including Obama, always make deals and offer concessions to secure an increase. Previous Congresses, however, have not been willing to take the debt-ceiling extortion racket to the brink.
What Obama really means by “not negotiating” is that he won’t accept a cuts-only approach, which is, of course, the only approach that Republicans will accept. As I said, playing with fire.
2. Mitch McConnell is AWOL. The Senate minority leader played a crucial role, along with Vice President Biden, in defusing the previous crisis, over the “fiscal cliff.” Never mind that the Kentucky Republican got a pretty good deal — Democrats ended up with way less new tax revenue than Boehner had offered and lost leverage to obtain more. He’s taken grief for raising any taxes and is desperate to fend off a tea-party-fueled primary challenge.
3. The insistence on defunding Obamacare introduces an unfulfillable demand into an already complicated equation.Defunding Obamacare isn’t going to happen, but enough House members have gotten themselves so worked up over the issue that Boehner’s ploy to give them a symbolic vote and move on with funding the government blew up last week.
You know things are bad when the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page starts sounding rational. As the Journal described the lunatic strategy, “Republicans must threaten to crash their Zeros into the aircraft carrier of Obamacare. . . . Kamikaze missions rarely turn out well, least of all for the pilots.”
Yes, but in the House, the crazies are in the cockpit and, in the form of outside groups, supplying the fuel in the form of campaign spending. Boehner doesn’t have control of his caucus.
4. The low-hanging fruit has been plucked. Taxes have been raised on the wealthiest Americans. Discretionary spending has been cut to the bone (with the sequester, beyond). The contours of a deal are as ever: blending entitlement changes and new revenue through tax reform. But the obstacles to a deal also remain firmly in place. Serious talks are close to nonexistent. The ability to quickly concoct a mini-bargain is limited.
Unduly pessimistic? Overwrought? Let’s hope so.
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