Debt ceiling strategy! Everyone knows we need one, in order to prevent a huge, global economy-crippling default crisis. But no one seems to know, right now, what the hell is going on, or how catastrophe is to be averted. That includes me. So, here is a column about how no one knows what the hell is going on, or how catastrophe is going to be averted, including me. I'm telling you this right up front, so that you can just bail out now, and get on with your life.
Okay, if you've stuck around, bear with me. Here we go.
First, some obligatory background that will provide many of you the opportunity to skip several paragraphs.
As I've written before, this whole "debt ceiling" thing is a sort of grand, metaphorical legislative ceremony. Congresses, past and present, have passed all sorts of bills that are now law, those laws dictate that a certain amount of money needs to get spent, and from time to time, in order to make good on what are already ironclad obligations, the "debt ceiling" has to be "raised," in order to maintain the full faith and credit of the United States, and the U.S. Treasury bonds, which the world has essentially agreed to observe as the magical linchpin of what is colloquially known as "the global economy."
This whole process of raising the debt ceiling is really nothing more than an incantation -- a loud chant in which our lawmakers profess the desire to honor our sovereign credit. It's sort of weird, but it sure beats sacrificing virgins under a full moon to appease volcano monsters.
In the past, the occasional need to raise the debt ceiling has been a time when we allow some lawmakers from the opposing party to make barbaric yawps about the policy priorities of the president and the party that controls the purse strings. A few lawmakers are chosen to cast ceremonial votes against the raising of the debt ceiling, so that their remarks make it into newspapers. But care is taken to make sure that the votes to raise the debt ceiling are there, when they are needed, which is "whenever we have to perform this dumb ceremony."
Everything changed during President Barack Obama's first term. For some reason, Obama thought that the raising of the debt ceiling would be a great occasion to stage a series of high-stakes budget negotiations. At the time, Obama was still under the impression that he was always just one reasonable accommodation away from achieving comity with the wildest and lycanthropic members of the Republican Party. He had promised, after all, to "bring everyone together." This was a pretty stupid promise to have made! But in his defense, when he made the promise, he did not yet know that he would be trying to "bring together" people who included a bunch of koo-koo-loo acid-head freakazoids.
And so it came to pass that he discovered that he was totally wrong about being perpetually on the verge of striking the right compromise and getting all of Washington to sing "Peace, Love, And Understanding" in Lafayette Park. Instead, Obama's opponents learned a different lesson: the debt ceiling could be taken hostage for the purpose of extracting a lot of concessions without having to offer any in return.
Okay, flash-forward to now. The two men in the center of this current, bordering-on-the-apocalypse mess are Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Somehow, some way, these two guys are going to have to figure a way out of this.
Right now, there is tremendous clarity with the president's position. He's not negotiating anything on the debt ceiling. He learned one of the dumbest lessons in one of the hardest ways possible, and he is obligated now, to do his part in stuffing the monster he loosed back into its cage.
His motivation for this is obvious. Standing firm here preserves the relevance of the presidency, for future Democratic and Republican presidents alike. If Obama fails to stand firm, what will happen is that all future Congresses will be predisposed to blackmailing all future presidents in this manner. All of which increases the likelihood that the default bomb explodes. Preventing these things from happening is of the highest importance.
Now, based upon my read of the situation, I strongly suspect that Boehner is of a similar mind. He, too, has an office, the relevancy of which he is similarly obligated to preserve. He seems fully aware of what's at stake. But Boehner is bound in ways that Obama isn't. He's beholden to a group of House Republicans who have essentially lost their minds, if they've ever had them to begin with, and he typically has to do a lot of careful management of this perpetual disorder. It's like he's in charge of a huge boiler, and he constantly has to release a little steam here, tighten a valve there, all with euphonious precision, lest the whole thing explode.
Here's something we can say, definitively. Boehner, right now, has the harder job. He's got to forge a path to an outcome that doesn't blow up the world. He's got to get there through a thicket of colleagues who are perfectly happy to blow up the world anyway, if they don't get something in return. Somehow, he's got to get this from Point A to Point B.
And he's basically got to engineer all of this in a way that looks like he has not engineered anything at all. If he succeeds, he's not going to win a medal for playing a huge role in preserving life as we know it. Realistically, he could end up losing his speakership. He could go down in history as a disgraced, hapless boob. So, you know, do like I do and spare a thought for the guy.
Because Boehner has to essentially pull off a weird bit of secret parliamentary parkour, no one reporting the "WTF is going to happen with the debt ceiling" story is able to properly assess what Boehner is ultimately going to do. We are left somewhere between horse whispering and "Oracle at Delphi"-style augury. Or a combination. Maybe we're whispering at the horse, "Hey, come here," and then when the horse walks over, we dagger open its gut and look for hope in the entrails that fall out on the dirt. Seriously, at this point, you could do a lot worse then kill a bunch of horses and ponder their intestines.
The Washington Post attempted to track down something solid -- something on which one might find purchase -- amid all of the ether earlier this week. It was impossible! Here is what happens in consecutive paragraphs:
1. Boehner has met with "small groups of rank-and-file lawmakers" and told them that he "will not permit the country to default for the first time on its debt," so he "has told fellow Republicans that they must craft an agreement that can attract significant Democratic support," because he's not going to get a "majority of the majority" to go along with it.
2. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a "close Boehner ally" agreed, saying, “This needs to be a big bipartisan deal.”
3. AND! "One lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Thursday that Boehner has suggested he may be willing to risk the fury of conservatives by relying on a majority of Democratic votes -- and less than a majority of Republicans -- to pass a debt-ceiling increase."
4. BUT! Just as this is starting to cohere: "A senior aide denied that Boehner has suggested such a strategy."
5. AND! "Meanwhile, senior policy aides were at work on last-ditch alternatives that could win the support of a majority of Republicans."
6. And then! Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said that the raising of the debt limit is contingent upon something that deals "with the drivers of our debt and deficits."
So in the course of six paragraphs, the mists part, shapes start to appear, and just as they are coming into focus, they morph and suddenly the fog is back. Can you trust what you've seen?
Let's go over to Robert Costa's latest at the National Review. Costa's sourced up, has the line on the best whispers, and sifts signal from noise with the best. Here's the new, new strategy: "A relatively modest mid-October offer that concurrently connects a debt-limit extension, government funding, and a small, but strategically designed menu of conservative demands."
Here's what we divine from this report:
1. Boehner has been "pressed" by "centrist members" of his caucus "to avert a default on the nation's debt." To that end, they urge him to "not put too much on the table" in terms of demands, or they'll cause Democrats to bolt. Boehner is "with them in spirit on averting default." This will become important in a minute.
2. So here's the inventory of demands: Revenue neutral tax-reform (or at least the solid opening for future talks on this), chained CPI, Medicare means-testing, repeal of the medical device tax in the Affordable Care Act. What may end up on the list: the Keystone pipeline, the repeal of the Independent Payment Advisory Board.
3. What do Democrats get in return? Costa says: "The goal, it seems, isn’t to cut a big deal that includes revenue concessions." In other words, nothing. Oh, wait, there is some possibility that if the Democrats "inch toward" the GOP, the Republicans "may budge a little on sequestration and look at trading some entitlement reform for renewed funding."
So that's the sum total of the reciprocation here: maybe the Republicans will consider unwinding the sequestration a wee bit -- a thing written to be a wholly irrational piece of fiscal policy -- because the hope was that everyone would come to a deal in order to avoid enacting a wholly irrational piece of fiscal policy.
(And why did all of the talks that might have avoided the sequestration fail? Well, to borrow a line I just cited: "The goal, it seemed, wasn’t to cut a big deal that included revenue concessions.")
So, really, the Democrats don't get much, beyond enacting the entitlement reform stuff that Obama has long had on the table. Of course, that's stuff that Obama had hoped to trade. Sooooo, why would Obama now give up that stuff in exchange for nothing? It makes no sense. It's a con-job dressed up like an exciting opportunity, portending the possibility that the GOP has, if nothing else, a bright future in the field of selling timeshares.
And the senselessness is compounded by the thing I told you would become important -- Boehner told the centrist Republicans he is "with them in spirit on averting default." But the threat of default is the leverage. For this to work, you have to at least pretend that the possibility of default is on the table. As Jonathan Chait pointed out Friday: "They’re either obscuring, or failing to understand, how threats work."
All I can do is take a wild, instinctual guess at what's going on -- but piss it, I may as well, since that's all anyone can do.
In all likelihood, Boehner is in fact, working to keep things obscure. He's got a pointed finger in his jacket pocket, and he's telling his kook colleagues that it's a gun, while whispering to the concerned centrists -- who'd like to survive all of this in a sane manner without Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) running ads against them in their districts -- that it's not a gun, but he'll make the offer anyway. There will be a dumb show between Boehner and the Senate. Boehner will make a good show of making demands, maybe the Senate Democrats will give a little, just to do him a solid. (I can see them giving up the medical device tax -- they want to anyway.)
It could end up looking like Key And Peele's "Django Unchained"-inspired sketch, in which two slaves, pitted in a battle to the death by their masters, try to mutually work out a way to not kill each other, but have trouble deciding who gets to look like the winner:
From a policymaking perspective, this all looks crazy. But from Boehner's point of view -- in which he places a priority on both preserving the world, and governmental norms, and his own speakership -- this may be the only thing that works. And this has been Boehner's go-to modus operandi for a while. Noam Schieber has described this in detail: Boehner takes a non-starter to the Senate, leaves it on their doorstep, the Senate hashes out a deal, and sends it back. Boehner tells his wild-eyed counterparts something like, "Jeez, guys, we fought hard! But ... [shakes fists] ... gah, the Senate, amirite?" The House folds and the world spins on.
Of course, all of this had been working great, until Ted Cruz came along and started blowing up this strategy. So now, there's no guarantee it's going to work. And that's why it's now fair to no longer characterize these interactions as "negotiations" between "two sides." It's become a confrontation between Boehner and Cruz. Nevertheless, what you see emerging from Costa's report is a return to this well-worn game of legislative Mummenschanz, with the hope that it works one last time.
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