Over the past two days, I’ve started hearing murmurs from the CW-vendors that in light of the potentially catastrophic consequences of breaching the debt ceiling on October 17, the White House’s stance that it won’t negotiate with House Republicans over it is untenable and irresponsible. But the draft legislation House leaders were circulating to lobbyists yesterday and to their members this morning shows why that’s wrong: The one thing Obama absolutely cannot do under any circumstances is negotiate over the statutory debt limit.
The reason is that Republicans are essentially asking for an end to constitutional government in the United States and its replacement by a wholly novel system.
From Jonathan Strong’s report at NRO, what Republicans want in exchange for agreeing to not default on the national debt is a one year delay of Obamacare, Paul Ryan’s tax reform, the Keystone XL pipeline, partial repeal of the Clean Air Act, partial repeal of bank regulation legislation, Medicare cuts, cuts in several anti-poverty programs, making it harder to launch medical malpractice lawsuits, more drilling on federal land, blocking net neutrality, and a suite of changes designed to make it harder for regulatory agencies to crack the whip.
Things like this do happen. The British system of government used to feature a ruling monarch who was checked in limited ways by two houses of parliament. Over time, those houses of parliament leveraged their control over tax hikes into overall control of the government. On a somewhat slower time frame, the elected House of Commons nudged the House of Lords out of almost all of its de facto political power. And that’s the House’s proposal here. The president should become an elected figurehead (not dissimilar to the elected presidents of Germany, Israel, or Italy) whose role is simply to assent to the policy preferences of the legislative majority.
That’s the logic of bargaining over the debt ceiling, because this isn’t really a bargain at all. A bargain is when Obama wants something the GOP doesn’t want (universal preschool, say) and then the GOP says “look we’ll do it, but only if you do X, Y, and Z for us.” Increasing the debt ceiling isn’t like that. It isn’t a pet policy priority of Obama’s and it isn’t something House Republicans oppose. It’s something both sides agree is necessary to avert a legal and financial disaster.
The absolute worst mistake Obama has made as president came back in 2011 when Republicans first pulled this stunt. At that time, Obama desperately wanted a bargain over long-term fiscal policy. So he tried a bit of too-clever-by-half political jujitsu in which GOP debt ceiling hostage taking became a pretext to start negotiations over long-term budgeting. All manner of evils have fallen forth from that fateful decisions, including an economic weak patch in 2011 the ongoing mess of sequestration, and worst of all the setting of a precedent for future crises. The good news is that the White House recognizes they made a mistake, and the last time Republicans tried to pull this they didn’t give in. And they can’t give in now. Not even a little bit. A terrible monster was let out of the box in 2011 and the best thing Obama can possibly do for the country at this point is to stuff it back in and hopefully kill it.