Debt Ceiling Warz Episode II

by Benjamin Studebaker

Once more republicans in congress are planning to fight over the debt ceiling, refusing to raise it unless the president defunds health reform. Barack Obama insists that the debt ceiling is “not a bargaining chip”. Health reform is the primary lasting legislative achievement of his administration, and he insists he will not abandon it. The trouble is that Tea Party republicans don’t believe his threat to starve them out is credible. Why is that? That’s the topic of today’s post.

The republican strategy is once again one of “hostage tactics”. The republicans threaten to create a fiscal crisis by refusing to allow the government to borrow the funds it needs to meet its obligations unless the president does whatever they want.

The republicans are not crazy; they engage in hostage tactics because they have some rational reason to believe two things:

  1. Hostage tactics are reasonably likely to work.
  2. The public will not hold hostage tactics against the GOP.

I argue that Barack Obama is himself the primary cause of the GOP’s belief in each of these things. To see this, we need to look back at the first debt ceiling conflict in 2011. In 2011, republicans insisted that Obama enact the Budget Control Act of 2011 in exchange for a debt ceiling hike. The Budget Control Act mandated that congress and the president cut spending. If they failed to do so, the Budget Control Act mandated deep automatic cuts–the fiscal cliff. A further fight ensued over how to avoid the fiscal cliff, in which the president conceded sequestration. All throughout that ensuing period, the administration was tied up in negotiations about spending cuts and was unable to advance any other policies of significance.

By appeasing republicans and giving into their demands in 2011, Barack Obama communicated several things:

  1. He’s weak–he negotiates with political terrorists and will do so in future.
  2. Hostage tactics are in line with accepted political norms–by negotiating with republicans in 2011, the president helped to normalize what was previously exceptional behavior. 
  3. By using these tactics, republicans can not only get policies they want, they can embroil the president in political controversies he cannot win, preventing him from implementing his own agenda indefinitely.

The republicans learned that they could get what they wanted, derail the conversation, and do it without experiencing serious electoral consequences. Now, in order to prove that the republicans are wrong about this, that they won’t get what they want and that the public won’t accept it, it’s not enough to threaten–the president will actually have to go through the exercise of standing up to the hostage tactic. Emboldened by the 2011 fight, republicans are likely to push this much further than they otherwise would have, forcing the president either to allow a government shutdown so as to demonstrate his resolve, or to use one of the escape routes he previously renounced–the platinum coin or the 14th amendment.

When all’s said and done, the republicans will have scored major victories on the president regardless. They will have managed to turn a minimum of two years of the Obama administration into a series of negotiations on matters the president should never have negotiated over. Instead of debating new policies, the president will have played defense. Barring major democratic victories in 2014 (which are unlikely due to severely Gerrymandered house districts and the fact that a large portion of the population really does think that health reform is going to harm them in some way), he will likely continue to be a lame duck all the way through 2016. The 2012 election will have prevented whatever it was Mitt Romney would have done had he won (none of us really know what that would have been–I doubt even he does), but it will not result in any substantive new policies from the Obama administration.

This is the larger problem–in a time of persistently weak economic growth, we have a political system that is action-inhibiting. Whether you’re leaning left or right, it must be admitted that our government as presently constituted is ill-equipped to pursue solutions of either variety. Movement in either direction currently requires that one side or the other manufacture a crisis (e.g. the debt ceiling fights) or encounter one in the wild (e.g. the financial crisis).  Often, wild crises still prove to be insufficient to generate any kind of action (e.g. mass shootings). Furthermore, the kind of political action we get in response to these crises is almost never the kind of well-considered, thoughtful action we want. It’s usually panic-driven policy, forcibly churned out at high speeds to meet deadlines, whether real or artificial. Not only that, but the politics of crisis is invariably emotionally driven.  There’s no time for nuance, no time to think about what we’re doing, and no opportunity to prevent crises before they happen. Indeed, to the extent that we have preventative policy at all anymore, it’s always retroactive. We act not to prevent crises we foresee, but to prevent repeats of crises we have already experienced. As a result, we always find ourselves having to learn the hard way.

When policy change requires crisis, those who wish to change things end up with an incentive to generate crisis if none can be found. That’s what the GOP is doing right now, and who can blame them? Just like the president, they have no efficacious conventional way of pursuing their goals. There is an inherent instability in all of this–if we need crises, real or manufactured, to do anything, we swiftly see that the bigger the crisis, the more we have the opportunity to do. Down the line, we may see this incentive manifest not as a mere debt ceiling dispute, but in revolutionary behavior. A political system that needs crisis to function will eventually find itself facing the biggest crisis of all–the crisis of its own collapse.