In 2011, when the intensive negotiations between Boehner and President Obama broke down, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stepped in at the 11th hour to fill the vacuum and avert a default. When Boehner declared that he would not participate in any negotiations over the fiscal cliff, McConnell partnered with Vice President Joe Biden to fill the vacuum. This time? There will be no McConnell; the minority leader is so cowed by the challenge to his renomination from the right that he will not be a party to any "compromise." And the informal negotiations between Obama, his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and a group of Republican senators led by Bob Corker have broken down, at least for now.
At this point, I will be surprised if we do not have at least one partial government shutdown within the next month or two, and I fear there is a high chance of a real breach in the debt ceiling, one that may not last for a long time, assuming that the markets react violently to something they still believe will not really happen, and that voters react to the notion that the U.S. will pay its creditors in China before it pays its troops in Afghanistan. But a default this time will have devastating consequences, meaning a downgrade in our credit by all ratings agencies and a spectacle to the world of spectacular, self-destructive dysfunction.
I could go on, but I want to focus instead on the damage already occurring from the 2011 deal, via the sequester. The mindless, across-the-board budget cuts in domestic and defense discretionary spending were openly and deliberately designed not to occur — the idea was to spur the "supercommittee" created by the deal to do a broader fiscal bargain, along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles proposal, to avoid sequester catastrophe. But the "no-taxes" pledge killed the chance for that broader deal. We have had one year of the sequester, and are approaching the second tranche. The damage to the country and the fabric of governance was not immediately apparent — this was not like the roof of the American house on fire, but more like a particularly potent group of termites eating out the foundation. But its impact is becoming more apparent and more alarming.
This August, I went with my family to Glacier National Park, a place of awesome beauty, which reminded me again that our national parks are a crown jewel of our wonderful country, and that our park rangers are themselves wonderful monuments to public service. But I could see small signs of the deterioration caused by the budget cuts — facilities closed or curtailed, maintenance deferred. In several parks, such as Yellowstone, private contributions kept the worst disruptions from occurring, but that will not happen when the second wave of cuts take effect. Roughly 279 million people visited national parks in 2011; the parks are more than nice places to visit, because they generate huge amounts of economic activity and jobs in the areas around them. Hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts will jeopardize billions of dollars in economic activity.