As was written in the prophecies, the early autumn on Capitol Hill shall be spent fighting over the debt ceiling, with House Republicans demanding for multiple disparate and loosely-connected concessions, and the Democrats and John Boehner taking short breaths into brown paper bags.
Quick refresher: When Congress authorizes the government to spend money, bills pile up. To pay those bills, the government needs to borrow money. The debt ceiling is the maximum amount the government can borrow. And when more bills come in than the government can borrow, the ceiling needs to be raised. What was once a relatively uncontroversial vote to authorize more borrowing has now become a symbolic point of pride for conservatives, one only loosely linked to the measure's actual role.
Politico reports on what the Republicans would now like to put on the table as Congress takes up debate on the topic once again.
- Sequestration cuts
- Cuts to social safety net programs
- The Keystone XL pipeline
- Other energy policies
- Delaying Obamacare
- Defunding Obamacare
- Revising the individual mandate
In other words, everything. Every major policy focus for the Republican party.
This, apparently, is what Congressional representative democracy now looks like: do nothing for the entire year and then use the need to raise the debt ceiling as a point of pressure to cut a deal. It makes President Obama's December 2010 press conference, in which reporter Mark Ambinder first suggested that the debt ceiling could become a contentious issue, seem quaint. "When you say it would seem they’ll have a significant amount of leverage over the White House," Obama asked Ambinder, legitimately puzzled, "what do you mean?" He meant this: caroming from one debt or spending crisis to the next, yelling at each other in between.
What's odd is that the Republicans apparently think that the Democrats will accede to this debate. From Politico:
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other GOP leaders think that if they are able to lump the sequester [sic] and debt ceiling into one legislative fight, they will be able to extract some changes to entitlement programs from President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. The more issues thrown in the same debate, the better — as they create more leverage points, Republicans say. Obama could say he didn’t negotiate over the debt ceiling, but rather the sequester [sic], and Republicans could brag about more concessions from the president.
First of all, this doesn't make sense, because it seems unlikely that those who care enough about what is being debated to pay attention will be fooled into thinking that Obama wasn't talking about the debt ceiling. Second of all, it's strange to think that the Republicans still think that a reduction of sequestration cuts will be seen as a concession by their base, after the response the party got after letting the Bush tax cuts expire and then be reintroduced to fewer people. But third: the Democrats have nothing to lose. If the government's credit rating plummets because Republicans wanted approval of an oil pipeline, it's not clear how that hurts the left.
What's become largely apparent over the course of the past month is that the Republican leadership is trying to deal with the crisis of its largely undisciplined membership in the same way that the party wants to deal with its policy priorities: keep kicking them down the line until there's no choice but to resolve everything at once.
Of course, it's the undisciplined membership that's insisting that the party prioritize largely unattainable issues anyway, and Boehner doesn't seem to know what to do about it. At that 2010 press conference, Obama explained to Ambinder why he didn't think raising the debt ceiling would become a problem.
[N]obody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse, that that would not be a good thing to happen. And so I think that there will be significant discussions about the debt limit vote. That’s something that nobody ever likes to vote on. But once John Boehner is sworn in as Speaker, then he’s going to have responsibilities to govern. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower.
In other words, Obama figured Boehner would keep them in check. Boehner's not the one throwing the bombs — it's his teammates — but he's not keeping them in check. He's standing alongside, whispering that he agrees with them. "The president’s threat to shut down the government if we implement his sequester is not a defensible position," he said on a conference call, according to Politico. That bit of doublespeak is Boehner patting the bombthrowers on the back even as he melodramatically shrugs at Obama, what-can-ya-do.
There are still two more months before all of this is resolved. There's little suggestion that the drama will decrease over that time period. Or that either side will see this as instructive on what not to do in future debates. After all, it's basically the same thing that happened in 2011, when Ambinder was first proven right.