Posted by: Chris | July 28, 2011

A Few Secondary Items on the Debt Ceiling

Some quick thoughts on the debt crisis:

First, there has been much schadenfreud across the internet at the Republican’s internal sniping this week and the looming possibility that the Speaker will be unable to muster the necessary votes to pass his current resolution (Cf. Andrew).  Though the webby Left’s sniggering glee at their ideological opponents’ difficulties is understandable (and, given some egregious pig-headedness of late, I am more than sympathetic), it needs to be emphasized that the most plausible way this crisis gets resolved is if the Boehner plan passes the House tonight.  It will then proceed to the Senate, where Harry Reid will use the amendment process to make the bill resemble his own proposal, which will presumably pass tomorrow sometime, be hashed out in reconciliation over the weekend,and the resulting bill will be passed by both houses and reaching the President’s desk by Monday night.  If Boehner cannot muster enough votes for the bill, then the solution to this process becomes much murkier, especially since, as an appropriations bill, any debt ceiling increase must originate in the House.  It will likely mean that GOP leaders will have to seek Democratic votes at the cost of votes in their own party, which will involve even more informal negotiations and a whole new round of proposals and CBO scores, all in a restrictive four-day window (assuming Congress stays open this weekend). 

Even if all sides pull through, Boehner will no longer have effective control of his caucus and will need Democratic votes to pass any future resolutions.  This will only make the next round of crisis negotiations (this September, over the budget) incredibly difficult, because, even if President Obama successfully buffalos Speaker Boehner during that stand-off (like Clinton did Gungrich in 1995), it is now entirely up in the air how many Republican Congressmen will follow.  This means Democrats will have to negotiate individually with all the minor chieftains, sheikhs, shoguns, and opperhoofds of the Congressional GOP, certainly an unmanageable headache.

In the event that the Boehner plan passes and something quite similar to it becomes law, it should hardly be considered a Republican victory.  The whole point of using the debt ceiling as leverage was so that the GOP House could accomplish three things out of proportion to its actual representation in Congress:

  1. Fundamentally revise entitlement spending procedures to curb future growth in old-age programs like Social Security and Medicare
  2. Force Democrats to large cuts in discretionary spending outside of the upcoming budget negotiations
  3. Either make permanent or revise the Bush tax cuts so that they do not lapse in 2012

None of these ends will have been accomplished by Boehner plan or any likely compromise plan to emerge.  Ironically, all of these were, in some fashion, in either the “Grand Bargain” hashed out by President Obama or the Gang of Six proposal rejected (since the perfect is always the enemy of the good enough) by the House leadership.  Indeed, the decision to make a stand over the debt ceiling, rather than in a month over the budget seems to have been a fizzling failure.  Granted, Republican intransigence forced the White House to make surprising concessions quite early on (especially considering back in May the official position was an insistence on a clean debt ceiling hike).  However, a seemingly pervasive misunderstanding about what is entailed by the debt ceiling* in certain quarters of the Congressional GOP and an escalating sense of what could be accomplished through churlishness has meant that the only bill achievable right now involves less than 1 trillion dollars in mostly already scheduled cuts (including $22 billion for fiscal year 2012, which is even less than the number negotiated for this half-fiscal year) and empty spending caps that will likely never pass the Senate.  All the while, the country’s full faith and credit has been held in question (and quite possibly put under threat due to last-minute wrangling) and the GOP image has been run through the mud.  So I would reiterate David Frum’s series of questions for the House leadership:

If the Boehner plan is adopted, exactly what has been accomplished from a Republican point of view that could not have been accomplished by enacting more stringent budgets for fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2014?

If the Boehner plan is the answer, what was the question?

What exactly has been achieved by the past three months of edging toward national insolvency?

Finally, I thought that this bit from A World Restored, on negotiating in a situation where dissensus necessarily obtains (in this case the Treaty of Reichenbach of 1813), seemed apt, especially if the Boehner plans cannot find the votes to pass the House (at this late hour, it does not appear that tonight’s the night):

“But the dispute was much more fundamental than the conditions of peace.  The Allies were reluctant to make an agreement with Napoleon, but they wanted their programme to reflect at least the requirements of their security.  Metternich, who was convinced that any agreement with Napoleon was impossible, was concerned with the psychological impact of the Allied proposals…

The real issue then revolved around the purpose of the forthcoming conference.  If the conference was designed to achieve agreement, the programmes of the participants had to reflect their maximum demands.  But if it was to demonstrate its impossibility, a programme of minimum demands was called for.  In a stable international order, demands once formulated are negotiable.  In a revolutionary period, demands once made become programmatic.  In a stable order the diplomatic conference attempts to adjust differences amongst contenders.  In a revolutionary the purpose of the conference is psychological; it attempts to establish a motive for action and is directed primarily at those who have not yet committed.  To formulate minimum demands in a stable order is to surrender the flexibility of negotiation.  To formulate exorbitant demands to an antagonist who will in any case reject them is to compound the chief difficulty of the revolutionary period: to convince the uncommitted that the revolutionary is, in fact, a revolutionary and that his demands are unlimited.  It yields to the adversary the advantage of the advocacy of moderation without the risk of its accomplishment.”

*Based on the floor debates and related speeches, an incredible number of congressmen seem to think that the debt ceiling limits either yearly deficits or yearly spending levels rather than the total debt assumed by the Treasury.  For instance, here have been speeches on the House floor demanding a debt ceiling decrease which is not quite sensical.

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