Crisis? What Crisis?

How House Republicans are convincing themselves that defaulting on the country’s debt wouldn’t be the disaster everybody claims it’d be. 

John Boehner
Plenty of Republicans look at a potential debt default as another over-hyped crisis.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

For a couple of days last week, Texas Rep. Randy Neugebauer was the Republican face of the government shutdown. Neugebauer showed up to the Wednesday “storming” of the World War II Memorial, and got irritated when a park ranger closed a gate behind a group of veterans. The congressman was furious. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” snapped Neugebauer, as cameras rolled. Suddenly, an obscure and bespectacled member of the Committee on Financial Services was Internet Famous for not understanding irony.

When he got back to Lubbock this weekend, Neugebauer cleaned up the mess. “There was an article in the Washington Times, I think the day before yesterday,” he told a local radio host. “A park ranger was quoted, saying, we were told to make this as painful as we possibly can. And that’s just the Obama administration playing games with our heroes.”

Not for the first time, an anonymous quote has been used to prove a theory that works for House Republicans. Wes Pruden, a columnist at the Times, cited an “angry Park service ranger in Washington” who’d been told to “make life as difficult for people as we can.” The quote has been treated like an accidental papal bull from Obama himself. “Several congressional committees have said they would look into the Park Service’s decisions,” reported the Times in another story, “accusing the Obama administration of trying to make the shutdown as painful as possible for Americans.”*

That’s how plenty of House Republicans, who remain the prime movers in the shutdown crisis, are looking at the terrain. They were told for years that a shutdown would be a disaster for the economy and their party. They were told the same thing about sequestration. Neither crisis has really lived up to the end-of-times hype, especially not in their districts. The worst effects, the ones constituents ask about, appear to them to be engineered by a vindictive Obama administration. And they expect the same if they fail to raise the debt limit—a crisis manufactured by Obama, not by them.

In the conservative media, this is the biggest story that the lamestream press won’t cover. And it is a story: It doesn’t make sense that some government sites are tagged with “shutdown” closed signs when most of their content is readable. Over the weekend, conservatives puzzled at how the Amber Alert website went offline. The administration explained it as a minor outage; conservatives saw it as an application of the “firemen first” strategy.

“During the fight over the sequester, Obama ordered the government to make the 2 percent budget cut as painful and scary as possible,” wrote Jonah Goldberg in National Review last week.

On Fox News, the shutdown has been portrayed as a meager “slimdown” that’s allowing the government to function pretty much the way it always has. The only notable exceptions: Park closures, where “barrycades” have gone up to block Americans from their god-given green spaces and memorials. “[Obama] can increase the pain on the American public or he can decrease the pain,” said Andrew Napolitano on Fox News. “He wants the market to go down and he wanted this shutdown.”

Again, this isn’t completely crazy. The White House really did expect the shutdown to sober up Republicans, and to scare them out of more brinkmanship when the debt limit comes up. It’s not happening. Plenty of Republicans look at a potential debt default as another over-hyped crisis.

The theory goes like this. Several times, Republicans have passed (or endorsed) the Full Faith and Credit Act to assure investors that the country won’t default. Just like Obama should be moving around money to keep the parks open, he should be telling investors that he can use incoming revenue to avert a default by paying debt service, entitlements, and the military.

Anything less, according to frequent Full Faith and Credit Act sponsor Sen. Pat Toomey, is a “scare tactic.” House Republicans who voted for that act insist that the president’s going to be able to finance the debt and keep old people alive—unless he’s so vindictive that he doesn’t want to. “Social Security benefits are funded by mandatory spending,” explained Texas Rep. Bill Flores to a reporter in his district. “They go out come heck or high water. The only way Social Security payments could be withheld is if two things happen. One is the president decides to withhold them, or two, he takes the staff away that generates those payments or checks that go out the door.”

Republicans talk about this with the confidence of people who can’t lose. “We’ve got more than enough cash flow, more than enough cash flow to pay interest on the public debt when it comes due and the House Republicans have passed a prioritization bill,” said Texas Rep. Joe Barton on CNBC this week. “This talk about default by the U.S. Treasury is nonsense. The president can be smart or the president can be stupid. And I would assume as smart as President Obama is, when push comes to shove, he’ll be smart. So we are not going to default on the public debt. But that doesn’t mean that we have to pay every bill the day it comes in.”

We heard the same debt limit fan fiction in 2011. That was before an actual shutdown. That was before sequestration. Republicans have a new, cold confidence that the president, and the press, are lying to them about the downsides of these crises. Democrats are just comforting themselves with polls—Washington Post, Fox News, Pew—that show the public turning on the GOP’s shutdown strategy.

They keep forgetting that House Republicans aren’t accountable to “the public.” They have to answer to conservative voters. And according to Pew, 54 percent of Republican voters think America could breach the debt limit “without major problems.” The base sees the real crisis as some future, Greece-style collapse. That feels more real to them than these spending and shutdown crises that can be easily blamed on President Obama, parlor tricks meant to make Republicans surrender.

“We’re not French,” Texas Rep. Pete Sessions told a heckler when they met at the World War II Memorial. “We don’t surrender.”

Correction, Oct. 7, 2013: Due to an editing error, an incorrect version of this paragraph was published. The original article misstated that no park ranger had been quoted. The Washington Times article cited by Neugebauer quoted an anonymous park ranger. (Return to the corrected sentence.)