Watching Congress wrangle over the fiscal mess they created was like watching two hapless teens try to have it off with each other in the back seat of a van on prom night: lots of flopping bodies and friction that leads to a climax that seemingly satisfies nobody. The basic way of looking at who "won" and who "lost" is to give the Democrats credit for winning a public relations victory that they can't parlay into future policy gains, and to wonder -- briefly -- why the GOP is somehow sad about the deal (instead of pouring Gatorade all over themselves for re-enshrining the Bush-era tax cuts and grabbing all the negotiating leverage on spending), until you remember, "Oh, right, it's 2013, and they are all crazy lycanthropes now."

Now that a "deal" has been forged, everyone has woken up to a pasty-faced morning hangover of not liking something about what was brokered over the course of what's normally a national holiday to celebrate the mistakes of the previous year and/or night. Molly Ball has the essential run-down of how the playmakers are all disappointed today. Our own Dave Jamieson has the story of forgotten stakeholders -- minimum-wage workers who were looking forward to a modest hike in take-home pay -- who have had whatever measly uptick in fortune dashed to hell now by the demise of the payroll tax holiday. (That's something that both parties had long agreed to do, so score yet another victory for "bipartisanship" and the terrific benefits it provides to the people of this nation.)

But while there's a lot of disappointment to go around this morning, it all pales in comparison to the gigantic calamity that still looms: the future fight over the debt ceiling. It's coming in March, and it will likely be a repeat of the last round, in which Republican legislators weaponized the process and threatened to destroy the global economy. They are planning to do so again: "This is the best that could be done," said Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who added, "It's not all I would have liked, but it's called American democracy, so on to the debt ceiling." (And Graham is supposed to be a "reasonable" senator whom Democrats can "work with" to pass bipartisan legislation.)

The "debt ceiling" is like the "fiscal cliff" in at least one important way -- it's a metaphor that doesn't describe what's actually going on, while being simultaneously easy to deploy as a means to drive panic. The whole concept of "raising the debt ceiling" has come to mean, in the popular consciousness, an act that permits Congress to spend more. People visualize this ritual process as one that creates brand-new space for brand-new spending. That is almost perfectly incorrect: the act of raising the debt ceiling is actually a ritual in which Congress acknowledges the expenses of its collective past actions and reaffirms its promise to make good on its obligations.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are in one of those college-style living arrangements in which you and a handful of roommates occupy an apartment, and each of you has agreed in advance to pay a portion of the rent that, in total, keeps you in the clear with your landlord. Every month, you and your flatmates write a check, and you pay the amount stipulated in your lease. Naturally, from time to time, having to pay rent puts a crimp in what you'd like to do, budget-wise, but you are a reasonable person and, like a reasonable person, you recognize that shelter from the elements is essential to your well being.

But one day, one of the people with whom you've entered into this arrangement says, "I need to free up money in my budget, so I'm going to be paying $200 less each month." How will you, as a group that's entered into a mutual obligation to pay the landlord, continue to meet it? "Not my problem," says the suddenly intransigent roommate, "You guys can come up with the money out of your budgets, or agree to accommodate my wishes through concessions, like reducing my expenses for me in another way, but I'm holding firm to this position." When you point out the part where the refusal to pay the entire monthly rent could result in everyone "defaulting" on the obligation and being tossed into the street, the lunatic roommate says, "Well, I guess you'd better figure out what to do then, because that sounds bad."

That's essentially what happened in the previous debt ceiling fight, but in a concession that has to be made to the werewolves who glommed onto this tactic as a means of extracting concessions, it should be pointed out that President Barack Obama made the mistake of inviting negotiations over the debt ceiling in order to craft a "grand bargain." By doing so, he emboldened the debt ceiling lunatics -- it was the first drop of blood that made them hungry for more.

As you might recall, those negotiations did not end in a "grand bargain." Rather, they resulted in a grand disaster: the Budget Control Act, which begat the Super Committee, which begat the sequestration cuts, which begat the fiscal cliff, which begat yesterday's temporary solution to the fiscal cliff, which now spawns the next crisis. And that crisis hilariously combines the next required lift of the debt ceiling with the unresolved sequestration cuts and forces a new deadline for both at the beginning of March.

That's right! We combine the cause of all our fiscal problems with the presumed solution to those same problems in a KFC-style Double Down of Fried Fiscal Offal that we have to "avert" in March. And unlike the so-called fiscal cliff, there are actual, immediate consequences that include a possible government shutdown and the default on our sovereign credit.

At one point in time, it was rumored that the White House was not going to accept any fiscal cliff deal that did not include the immediate de-weaponization of the debt ceiling -- which was probably the single-most responsible demand the White House could make in the negotiations. But as the path wended its way to the New Year's Day punt, this de-weaponization came off the table as a demand and was replaced with a simple rhetorical insistence from Obama that his days of negotiating over the debt ceiling were over. That would all mean something to somebody somewhere were it not for two factors:

1. As the deadline for raising the debt ceiling coincides with the conclusion to long and complicated negotiations over what will replace the sequestration cuts, it's not plausible to think that someone, at some point, isn't going to use the debt ceiling as leverage to extract concessions on a final spending deal. (And while you can count on the Pentagon being spared its share of pain, you can't guarantee the safety of earned benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security.)

2. No one in America actually believes that a "simple rhetorical insistence from Obama that his days of negotiating over the debt ceiling were over" translates into an iron-clad agreement that he will hold the line, since holding a line in any bargaining session does not seem to be something he's particularly into doing. (Though it should be said: you aren't "caving" if the end result to which you concede is actually the result you secretly wanted. And there's every possibility that Obama, in considering his legacy above any policies that could benefit working- and middle-class Americans, may just pay down those debts and dare the Republicans to stop him.)

But in the short term, Obama seems to be counting on the idea that the GOP legislators he'll face in March of 2013 are not really crazy enough to plunge the country into default in exchange for a slightly greater impoverishment of the elderly or a level of discretionary spending that's so low that Obama can't live with it.

On one hand, this is maybe not a terrible hand to play. If it were a President Romney being sworn in this January, you could all but guarantee that GOP legislators would not give him even a moment of guff over the debt ceiling -- they'd happily raise it every time Romney asked, without complaint or regard to his spending requests (which, judging by his platform, included substantial new military spending and a tax plan that would've jacked up the deficit).

On the other hand, it's a truism in theatre that the weapon that's introduced in Act One must be fired in Act Five, and the debt ceiling has been transformed from a strange little ritual of our American government into such a weapon. Given an opportunity to disassemble it, Obama passed. And so the danger remains.

Nevertheless, it's really essential for the media to start doing a better job of getting this story right, and to stop pretending like the side that's considering not raising the debt ceiling is simply presenting a credible argument in a grand debate or expressing an interesting point of view that deserves to be considered alongside everyone else's. Greg Sargent defines the stakes correctly:

It needs to be reiterated, again, that in threatening to hold the debt ceiling hostage next year, Republicans are not making a conventional negotiating demand, in which each side withholds concessions in order to extract more from the other side. The eventual GOP agreement to raise the debt ceiling will not constitute a concession on Republicans' part. Republican leaders know they will have to raise the debt ceiling, because (as they also know) not doing so will lead to default and damage the economy. If and when they do agree to do so, that will simply constitute an agreement on their part not to hurt the country, yet they will ask that it be treated as a concession for which they should receive something in return.

Here's a tip for those who want to be professionals: Debt ceiling hostage takers are dangerous psychopaths, full stop.

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  • Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) seems to fight back tears while listening to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol March 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. Gillard emphasized the long and strong bond between her country and the United States.

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