Is This the Debt Limit’s Darkest Hour?

Maybe. But as bad as it seems, Congress will still probably strike a deal.

No one wants the sequestration pains from the last debt limit fight—or do they?

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s easy to forget, what with the exciting minute-to-minute details of who will be denied health care in order to fund the government, but the lurching, teetering, drunken movement in Washington really does suggest there’ll be some sort of deal. The latest versions of this deal provide some buffer room—until Dec. 15, in the new House bill—when the government will operate and the debt limit will be redrawn. This compromise is supposed to buy time for Congress to work out an actual budget agreement, in a conference committee, the way God and the founders intended.

The sentiment is universal. “I want a budget agreement,” wrote Rep. Paul Ryan in the Wall Street Journal column that re-established him (in the punditocracy’s view, anyway) as the sane Republican dealmaker. “When this shutdown does come to an end, as Senate Budget Committee chair I will be ready and willing to negotiate a long-term budget plan and end these constant crises,” wrote Sen. Patty Murray in a less-noticed Seattle Times column.

Hang on—hasn’t Congress already failed in spectacular fashion, under extraordinary conditions, to do anything like this? Yes, it has. The Great Debt Limit War of 2011, or Debt War I, ended with the Budget Control Act that we’re still living under. It created a “supercommittee” (not the official term, but the annoying one that stuck) empowered to craft a long-term spending deal as long as it reduced the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. If it failed, there was a “trigger”—$1.2 trillion would be automatically cut in “sequestration.” The theory: Automatic cuts would terrify Congress into fixing the debt with a plan that could pass easily under special rules.

It did fail. When you bring up the supercommittee now, to the unlucky senators and members of Congress who were part of it, they give you a look like you’ve discovered the yearbook photo of him or her before the perm set in.

“Don’t talk about triggers, now!” said Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of the old supercommittee’s Democratic wise men.

“You’re comparing the budget conference to the supercommittee?” said Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, when asked how a fall/winter budget conference would work if the triggers didn’t. “I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that question definitively. Maybe one would hope that after an experience like the one we’re going through, it might lead to a different outcome, but there’s no assurance. You know—maybe the disruptive nature that’s inherent to a shutdown changes things.”

There was a reason for the supercommittee, the same reason that prevented a budget conference all year. Republicans realized that they could never get the main goals of their budget—repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare privatization—through a bipartisan committee. Their budget reduced $4.6 trillion in spending over 10 years by locking in those changes, and a series of other cuts, and general guesswork about how much tax reform could save. The Senate Democrats’ budget did none of that, raised taxes, and reduced $1.85 trillion.

“Why we’re here, primarily, is that the appropriations process broke down and we’re working on different numbers,” said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, one of the party’s Senate spending hawks and anti-Keynesians. “If we were working on the same number, we wouldn’t be here today. I said that to the president when he had [senators] up to the White House last week. He didn’t agree on the number, but he agreed on that.”

Shelby sounded less confident that the pain of sequestration and shutdown would force real bargains. “It’s punting, to use a metaphor from football,” he said, swinging his leg to fully illustrate his point. “No one, Democrats or Republicans, wants to face up to the tough reality. If we could ever do this, and keep sequestration, we’d be on the right road. The road of pain, but the right road economically and financially.”

“We’re on an unsustainable fiscal path here,” added Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. “The sequester, as bad as that is in terms of policy, not actually making Congress do the hard work of prioritizing spending, has at least added some fiscal discipline.”

That’s getting into one of the ironies of the impasse. The 2011 debt deal and the 2012/2013 “fiscal cliff” punt did cut spending and raise some taxes. The economy grew. The “trillion dollar deficits” of 2011 have plunged. (That was one reason why the debt limit apocalypse, originally expected for early summer, fell back to October.)

“That helps us make the numbers work,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons. “The deficit’s falling. There are changes in assumptions because the rate of growth in health care costs is at a 40-year low. Now, hopefully, we won’t be going to a negotiating table after default which would push us back into a recession and pushing these numbers back up.”

Democrats had sort of hoped this would happen—they didn’t want a shutdown, obviously, but they preferred a short-term disaster that scared people straight to the market/credit crisis of a debt limit standoff. Coons thinks sequestration still could move the parties closer to a deal.

“We have lived with it,” he said. “All of us have federal agencies, communities—everything from parents of kids with cancer to schoolteachers to veterans who are calling in and meeting with us and saying the effects of sequestration are reckless and thoughtless.”

“I don’t think any of us want to go through this again,” said Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. “That’s on the side of sanity. That’s what’s new. None of us want to do it again—well, maybe I shouldn’t say that. Maybe the Tea Party wants to go through it again. Maybe they want to do it every month.”

Certainly, none of them would admit it. On Monday, before more panic set in, a reporter told Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions that the current crisis might end in a budget conference.

“You think it might happen?” joked Sessions, the ranking member of the budget committee.

“Would that be a victory for you guys?” asked the reporter.

Sessions didn’t miss a beat. “Unless the Senate budget passes,” he said. “It spends a trillion dollars more than the [Budget Control Act].”

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the debt ceiling negotiations.