Chaos as Legislative Strategy

John Boehner

President Obama’s description this morning of an idealized budget negotiation with Republicans was bizarrely quaint and decorous. “There’s a pretty straightforward way of doing this, and that is to set the debt ceiling aside, we pay our bills and then we have a vigorous debate about how we’re going to do further deficit reduction in a balanced way,” he said at the final news conference of his first term, devoted largely to the coming debt-ceiling crisis.

But the debate that Washington has been having has been anything but straightforward, and demanding that it be otherwise won’t make it change. The hard-right Republicans in the House aren’t interested in sitting at a long table with pencils and budget books; they want to set that table on fire, and burn to ashes all the compromises that long defined the two-party system.

Republicans have made it clear they are fully prepared to shut down the government, block payments to retirees and soldiers, default on the credit of the United States, and cause a global panic by the end of next month, all of which will result from failing to raise the debt ceiling. Politico quoted several Republican lawmakers and aides today who said that party members are demanding that Speaker John Boehner consider default and a shutdown as a serious governing option.

Mr. Boehner “may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system,” one leading Republican adviser said in the article. “We might need to do that for member-management purposes — so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.”

The use of chaos as a legislative strategy — and to “manage” raucous members — is a new and explosive element in American politics, one that Mr. Obama doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge. Though he has no reason to believe this, he expressed hope this morning that common sense would prevail once the American people realize Congress is balking at paying its own debts. By refusing to let Republicans use the ceiling as a negotiating level, he said, he will eventually persuade the party to do the right thing.

“This is the United States of America,” he said. “What, we can’t manage our affairs in such a way that we pay our bills and we provide some certainty in terms of how we pay our bills? Look, I don’t think anybody would consider my position unreasonable here.”

But of course an entire political party does. The president’s position as the rational man in the room may help shift public blame toward the Republicans, but it’s far from clear that will be a useful tool. Many House Republicans, from districts as small and rigid as they are, don’t care about blame and consequences. Even members of the House leadership are talking openly about the uses of extortion.

Unfortunately Mr. Obama has refused to halt the crisis with any of the “simpler solutions,” as he put it today, ruling out the minting of a coin or, more realistically, the use of a clause in the 14th Amendment. (That clause prohibits any questioning of the public debt, and some lawyers have said it could be used to permanently eliminate the debt ceiling.) So even if he gets through February with the usual last-minute deal that infuriates the hard right despite excessive spending cuts, they will be back with the same club, again and again, until someone with resolve puts a permanent end to it.

Leave a Reply