Dire warnings of a crisis serve the interests of both Democrats and Republicans as they try to bludgeon one another into a last-minute deal on the debt ceiling. But that doesn’t mean the warnings are valid. There is zero— and I mean zero —chance that the United States will default on its debt even under the worst-case scenario. More fundamentally, it is wrong to look upon the current impasse as a symptom of a deeper “crisis of governability.”
Despite claims to the contrary, this standoff is not unprecedented. It is a pale rerun of the Newt Gingrich-Bill Clinton confrontation over the federal budget in 1995 and 1996. The last time around, the Republicans posed a far stronger challenge to their Democratic antagonist in the White House. During Clinton’s first two years in office, they managed to beat back the president’s health care program, and capitalized on this remarkable victory by sweeping both houses of Congress. Though it may seem like ages ago, recall that President Obama succeeded on health care where President Clinton failed, and that the Republicans won only one chamber of Congress in 2010. (In 1994, they won both.)
In 1994, House Republicans actually gained a popular mandate by hammering out the Contract With America. This time around, the party did not go to the country with a unified program. While the Tea Party raised a Gingrich-like critique and carried many of the party’s freshmen to victory, many establishment Republicans won on more moderate messages.
As a consequence, the speaker is now an old-time wheeler-dealer, John Boehner, not a charismatic idea man like Gingrich. But Gingrich had more than ideas; he had also built House Republicans into a disciplined and aggressive force since he was first elected whip in 1989. By the time he called his troops to battle against Clinton, he had built up an enormous fund of loyalty as well as fervor.
In contrast, Boehner and the Tea Party owe no deep loyalty to one another. When the speaker confronts his antagonists in the Senate and the White House, he can’t be sure that his troops won’t stab him in the back. Even if he succeeds in rounding up the 216 votes necessary to pass his debt-ceiling proposal, as now seems likely, his evident difficulty has already devalued the House’s bargaining position in the next stage of wheeling and dealing. Quite simply, the speaker can’t credibly guarantee that he can get his party to buy into any concessions he makes in the future.
But he can’t credibly insist on a hard line, either. As the impasse continues, there will be further television duels with the president as each side seeks to mobilize public support. Boehner’s wooden performance during his first matchup against Obama on Monday makes it clear that he can’t effectively appeal to voters to support the Tea Party till his opponents cave in—especially when the advent of “default” on Aug. 2 will give the president powerful new weapons in the intensifying conflict. In contrast to 1995-96, the government can still spend all the tax revenues it collects, and it will be up to the president, and his secretary of the Treasury, to establish payment priorities. Under the Constitution, the first priority must be the payment of interest on the national debt—which the 14th Amendment states “shall not be questioned.” Since the Treasury will be receiving about $172 billion in revenues in August, it will have no trouble paying the interest of $29 billion due during the month. There is no reason for the bond markets to panic.
Once the president makes it clear that American bonds are absolutely secure, he must decide how he will spend the rest of the revenue. Obama has already indicated that Social Security payments are in danger—and when the checks stop arriving, Washington will hear from millions of pensioners. If the Tea Party continues to resist a genuine compromise at that point, Boehner will have little choice but to ram the bill through the House with the aid of Democratic votes. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it, further intransigence would assure that the “Republican brand” will be damaged goods for a very long time to come.
Boehner’s collapse, moreover, may teach Republicans a sobering lesson about the modern Constitution. Quite simply, it takes much more than the momentary control of the House to force America into the embrace of a radically new governing philosophy. It takes a president like Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan to launch such an effort—and even they cannot succeed decisively unless they can carry both houses of Congress in repeated elections.
The failures of Boehner and Gingrich show that there is no shortcut to this arduous process. Memories are short, but not that short. After two failed efforts in 20 years, it may be a generation or more before another movement tries to use the House to dictate terms to the Senate and president. The current impasse is not the prologue to some escalating congressional breakdown. It is the end of Gingrich’s dream of a constitutional putsch by the House of Representatives.