Choose Your Own Budget Adventure!

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Story by Chris Good; illustrations by Alex Hoyt.

You are John Boehner, recently anointed Speaker of the House of Representatives.

You're knee-deep in budget negotiations with the White House, trying to find a way to fund the government and live up to your campaign promise -- either to cut $100 billion from last year's spending levels, or from President Obama's requested spending for 2011, depending on whom you ask.

For the past month, the government has been funded by temporary stopgap measures as you try to reach a deal with Senate Democrats and the White House on spending levels through September, when the fiscal year ends. Your Republican House coalition is growing restless: No more, they say. This is it.13.png

Democrats control the U.S. Senate, and, given that they generally like to spend more money than you do, they're out to protect the programs that benefit their constituents, having promised to do so for decades.

In February you managed to pass, along with your Republican allies, a funding bill that cuts $61 billion from last year's spending. Tea partiers and fiscal hawks have supported it, though they want to see even more money shaved off. Senate Democrats and the White House have rejected this dictum out of hand.

The last stopgap measure runs out next Friday, April 8. If you don't reach a long-term deal, or another temporary fix, the federal government will shut down until you do.

As of Thursday, March 31, a compromise deal has been on the table: Vice President Joe Biden told reporters that everyone -- including you, implicitly -- is on board with a plan to cut $33 billion, well short of what the tea party wants. With help from moderate Democrats in your chamber, you could probably make this happen.

The tea party is putting the screws to you. For the last month, groups have accused you of going back on your promises. They won't be happy with the deal.

You have said there is no deal: Nothing is done, until everything is done. You've played it close to the vest.

Do you:

  • Tell the White House, No dice: We're cutting $61 billion, end of story (Go to Page 2)
  • Try to pass another temporary funding bill in the House, ensuring the government stays funded for another few weeks (Go to Page 12)

The White House weighs its position, consulting with Democrats in the Senate. A couple Democratic senators agree with you, but the leadership says, "We'll take our chances. Boehner doesn't know what he's doing." The White House agrees.88.png

Friday comes. MSNBC and CNN flip out. Rachel Maddow calls you a callous tyrant, and James Carville's head nearly explodes.

Fox has your back.

The federal government "shuts down," except for essential services, meaning veterans' benefits are held up, national museums and parks close, visa and passport services grind to a halt, some medical services cease, and hundreds of thousands of federal employees are sent home.

Do you:

  • Go back to the negotiating table, seeking a better compromise (Go to Page 4)

Thumbnail image for 88.pngThe shutdown continues. Your advisers, who have given you good advice through the midterms, say it's time for you to hold a higher-than-usual-profile press conference. You must explain your position to the nation, while sending a message to Democrats and tea partiers.

Do you:

  • Stand by the $61 billion bill passed by your Republican caucus and tell the nation, "We simply cannot afford to recklessly spend trillions of dollars we do not have. Our plan is not perfect, but it gets American on track toward good financial standing." (Go to Page 3 -- Groundhog Day)
  • Say you're willing to compromise, asking the White House to meet you somewhere in the middle (Go to Page 4)

The White House tells Senate Democrats it will take the lead in these negotiations. President Obama invites you to the White House for a meeting with him, his top aides, and Vice President Joe Biden. You bring Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) for backup.

When you arrive, Obama says he'd like to talk to you alone for a minute.

"Mr. President, with all due respect there are parts of the Republican conference that need to be represented here," Cantor grumbles. "We need to listen to the American people and the message they sent in --"

Obama cuts him off: "I know, Eric. I just wanted a word with the Speaker before we get going."

He holds open the Oval Office door, smiling at you.

Do you:


White House aides tell you they think you'll lose the political battle over a shutdown, and that they're willing to move, but not by much. $34 billion is all they can do.

"The American people are not going to be happy with this deal," Cantor tells them.

Do you:

  • Tell them they're wrong, you never cared much for the executive branch anyway, and you're willing to keep it closed for as long as it takes (Go to Page 9)

Secret Service men move into position outside the door. Obama closes it behind you with a neat click.

"Sorry, John. Just thought things could get done a bit better this way." The president moves to an end-table and raises a crystal caraffe. "Scotch?"

"I'm a bourbon man, myself, Mr. President," you tell him. "Never much cared for peat."

Obama stops, surprised. "Okay," he grins. "It'll have to be Basil Hayden's. Woodford sent me a case of this special batch they made, but Gibbs took it on his way out. He's being followed right now," Obama tells you as he pours. "Oh, and if that can stay between us ..."

"Of course," you agree. You think you might like where this is going.

"Listen, John, I know you're in a tough spot here."

"It's these tea partiers," you begin.

"They think I'm from Kenya."

"I know," you say.

"Ridiculous," the president snorts. He hands you a glass.

"All that aside," you tell him, "They're right: We can't keep spending trillions. I'm not going to tell them I agreed to a bill that'll drive us further into debt."

The president motions for you to sit down.

"Look, I'm on board with that. I'm not a big-spending guy. I'm supposed to be a moderate here. But look, when a financial crash happens, you wind up throwing a trillion at it to try to keep people out of bread lines, and now here we are," Obama says.

You both sip your bourbons on the Oval office couches and consider.

"$37 billion," the president says. "I'll tell them you talked me into it. I tried to reason with you, but I didn't have a choice. You threatened to hold us hostage, but we worked it out in the end. You walk away with $4 billion in the Treasury's pocket. You tell them I agreed to talk about further cuts in the future, and that this is what leadership looks like."

Do you:

You Strike a Deal, Become Best Friends with Obama, and Co-Star in a Buddy-Cop Film

"I like you, John," the president says. "Just keep those riders out of it. I like Planned Parenthood, and I listen to NPR."90.png

"Mr. President, you've got yourself a deal," you tell him.

The two of you stand, clasping hands firmly, and down what's left of the bourbon in your glasses. You emerge from the Oval Office to a disbelieving Cantor and a stunned cadre of White House aides.

At a joint press conference announcing the deal, your mutual affection is evident. You make jokes and pat each other on the back.

Miramax offers you a deal to co-star in a buddy-cop film entitled "D.C. Hustle, featuring Speaker and The Prez" with Seth Rogen cast as the rookie tag-along/comic-relief character.

The deal passes, and the government continues to function.

You Win, Are Anointed King of the Tea Party.

Weeks go by without the federal government operating, but you find that the American people don't mind so much.91.png

Emboldened by your experience confronting the White House, you call a press conference and deliver a speech outlining what you call "fiscal reality." You nail it, and you take no questions afterward.

Eventually, the White House caves. You secure a deal to cut $55 billion from the federal government, and the bill includes no funding for Planned Parenthood or NPR.

Tea partiers go wild, hoisting you into the air as you leave the Captiol after the vote, rhythmically chanting "Boeh-ner! Boeh-ner!"

In a unanimous vote among Glenn Beck, Freedomworks Chairman and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, billionaire libertarian financier David Koch, Ron Paul, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and the leaders of Tea Party Express and Tea Party Patriots, you are anointed King of the Tea Party.

You are presented with a crown and kingly robe, and a Kentucky thoroughbred on which to ride around while distributing fiscal justice.

You rule the tea party with a wise and judicious hand, convincing it that true leadership involves compromise. You are offered free meals at many restaurants throughout the land.


The White House's legislative-affairs staffers all gulp in unison.

"He's serious," one of them gasps, and is hushed by Chief of Staff Bill Daley.

Daley stares you down. He's a tough Chicagoan, an imposing figure when he stops playing nice. Menace hangs in the air. Growing up in Ohio, you've come across his type before.

"Take it or leave it, John," Daley says through gritted teeth. "No games. This is it."

Do you:

  • Tell Daley you're to be called "Mr. Speaker" or nothing at all (Go to Page 8)

You are eaten by a Deficit Hawk.

The hawk pursues you around the grounds of the Capitol Building, while the Capitol Police look on in stunned amazement, figuring they have hallucinated.86.png

Years of cigarette smoking leave you winded, and you find you cannot outrun the hawk. Panting, you turn and try to reason with it.

"Listen, hawk, let's talk this over," you say, deploying the good-natured charisma that has won you success throughout your time in politics.

"SKWAAAAAAWWWWK!" the hawk replies. Its fiscal rage cannot be sated.

Your political career withers on a once-promising vine, as you lose reelection to a tea partier with little experience.

You pass the deal, and business resumes.

A few dozen conservative Republicans vote against you, but with the support of moderate Democrats, the bill passes.89.png

The federal government continues to operate.

Tea partiers and your conservative colleagues grumble about the deal. They accuse you of selling them out, and question your commitment to deficit reduction, but there is no full-on revolt.

You tell them that a compromise was inevitable, you took the best deal you could, and you made headway with the White House, building a consensus that more cuts still need to be made.

They're not happy, but they accept that this is how business works.

The crisis is over, and you go back to work as Speaker of the House.


Tea partiers revolt against you, but you pass the bill and avoid a government shutdown.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) says you're failing to represent the nation's fiscal interests. Shaking his head solemnly in a widely viewed speech on the House floor, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) says he is sorely disappointed with the path you've taken.

More than half of the Republican conference votes against you. Over 1,000 tea partiers protest outside the Capitol.

But with the support of moderate Democrats, you manage to pass another temporary bill, keeping the government funded for another three weeks. The funding levels live up to your campaign pledges: If multiplied out over a full year, these funding levels would shave $100 billion off federal spending levels.

Negotiations resume, and the federal government continues to operate.

Do you:

  • Present your own plan, outlining a deal that will cut $50 billion. Through aides and private conversations with fellow lawmakers, you put out word that funding for NPR and Planned Parenthood will be preserved. (Go to Page 13)

Most House Republicans reject the plan.

"As Speaker of the House, you have pursued an unsustainable fiscal path," a coalition of conservative Republicans announce in a joint, open letter to you. They publicly claim they will settle for no less than $61 billion in cuts, with NPR and Planned Parenthood defunded. There is talk of doing away with the Department of Education and potentially NASA.

They seem Hell-bent on shutting the government down in three weeks.

The White House and moderate Democrats are open to the plan, but they enjoy seeing you squirm under the limelight. News outlets quote an unnamed White House aide as saying, privately, that "Boehner is so done."

Do you:

  • Tell the White House you will take the $33 billion deal, and try to convince House Republicans to vote for it (Go to Page 10)
  • Call a press conference and announce to the nation that everyone needs to calm down. Your plan is good. This is the way forward. (Go to Page 14)

As the shutdown grinds on for weeks, the nation is getting tired of all this.

On "Meet the Press," Tim Pawlenty, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), David Brooks, William Kristol, and Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew all wonder in unison how things have gone so badly.

Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich accuse you of bungling these negotiations so, so epically. Gingrich wonders if you might be part of a "secular-socialist" nexus that has infiltrated the U.S. government. Glenn Beck cries.

Bill O'Reilly likes your plan. He shrugs on camera, asking every guest, for three days straight, "Tell me: What's wrong with Boehner's plan." He does this to foreign-policy experts, even.

President Obama says you have lost credibility. "I don't see the point of meeting with John Boehner at this point," he says at a press conference.

Bill Clinton is quoted as saying your idea "seems reasonable," but that President Obama already offered a deal that would put the government back to work and get the nation's fiscal house in order. He doesn't understand why you've gone about things this way.

Do you:

  • Back away from your proposal, contact the president and conservative House members, and try to secure the $33 billion deal that was once on the table (Go to Page 10)
  • Call another press conference and announce, "No other deal exists that could win the support of multiple sides in this debate," and mock both Democrats and conservative Republicans for retreating from spending plans they once supported. Tell them, "The American people should be disgusted with all of you." Cast yourself as the only responsible player in this charade. (Go to Page 15)

You Are Given a Chance to Be King of America

Democrats and Republicans still reject your plan, and the government shutdown continues.87.png

Veterans' benefits are not being delivered, and the National Institutes of Health must cease promising clinical trials, denying hope to seriously ill patients. The nation is in crisis.

Browbeaten by your my-way-or-the-highway approach, conservative Republicans shuffle back to the Capitol and ask you once again about the specifics of your plan. They ask you to strip money for NPR and Planned Parenthood.

"No," you tell them. "I like Diane Rehm, and Science Friday is both educational and entertaining."

"Okay," they mumble.

To the amazement of Democrats, your plan passes the House. President Obama expresses doubts, but, by now, everyone is so tired of the shutdown that they'll do almost anything to end it. With support from a group of Democratic senators led by Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell convinces Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring your plan to a vote.

It passes. Obama has no choice but to sign it.

By now, it is Cinco de Mayo. After Obama signs the bill at noon Eastern, parties break out across the nation. Thousands, if not millions, of margaritas are toasted in your honor.

Awed by your leadership skills and "Scarface"-like ability to defeat rivals and stick to one plan, a majority of Americans quickly signs a pledge to appoint you King of America. Campaign ads, touting the pledge, are funded by a mysterious 501(c)4 group. You have no idea who is behind it. A robe and scepter arrive via mail, with no return address.

Congress is forced by public opinion to issue a plebiscite, and, with all nine Supreme Court justices openly speaking out against the measure, it wins a majority of support. You are anointed King of America.

Do you:

  • Accept the crown, knowing you will face a constitutional lawsuit filed by MoveOn.org and funded by Obama for America (Go to Page 16)
  • Politely decline, citing your faith in the Constitution as a guiding document, accept the presidency instead, and return the robe and scepter to the U.S. Postal Service (Go to Page 17)

You stroll through the White House, tossing your kingly robe off one shoulder. The lighting could use some improvements, and there are a few paintings you don't like. As an assistant stands by with a clipboard, you dictate a list of decorational changes to be made. He scurries off to arrange them.

Alone in a West Wing hall, you remark to yourself, "It's good to be the king."

Just then, you hear a soft footstep on the carpet. You turn to look.

A graying, well-dressed man emerges from a shadow in the hallway.

"Hello, John," he rasps.

"Who?" you begin to ask, squinting at him. You recognize his face. It all becomes clear.

"Looks like we'll be doing business together over the next few years. I hope it all goes well for both of us," David Koch tells you. "Just remember how you got here."

You are speechless. You think it may have been a mistake to accept the crown. After all, you spent your entire life, up until that point, working in service of the Constitution. Why, at that moment, did you change?

"Oh, and one more thing, John," David Koch says. "I like NPR too."

You are president of the United States of America.

The Constitution is upheld. Tension with the Supreme Court is diffused. You run against and defeat President Obama and begin a four-year term as president.

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Presented by

Chris Good and Alex Hoyt

Chris Good is an associate editor and online politics writer for The Atlantic. Alex Hoyt does story research for The Atlantic and illustrations for TheAtlantic.com.

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