Yesterday, Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate nearly completed work on a compromise that would end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling until early 2014. This morning, House Republicans destroyed that compromise, demanding instead that Democrats meet some relatively minor ransom demands in order to resolve the crises.
Democrats were amenable to the Senate Republican compromise, but quickly rejected the House Republican alternative. This, in turn, apparently confused quite a few Beltway political reporters. Why, they said, are minor concessions acceptable in one case but not in the other?
Let’s set the record straight, because to understand this is to understand the nature of the larger dispute.
Democrats have said from the beginning that funding the operations of the government and extending the Treasury’s borrowing authority are basic American governance – routine tasks Congress must complete, not opportunities for hostage crises. Far-right lawmakers cannot expect rewards or policy concessions in exchange for doing their duty.
Senate Republicans accepted this and worked towards a deal in which there would be no ransom – the parties budged a little on scheduled deadlines, then made mutual concessions so both sides got a little of what they wanted. House Republicans did the opposite – they expect Democrats to give them something in exchange for nothing.
For Beltway reporters, the intended ransom – a delay in the medical-device tax – is no big deal. This misses the point, badly.
Republicans believe it’s absolutely imperative that they maintain the ability to threaten the nation with deliberate harm, over and over again, in order to create “leverage” to achieve policy goals they can’t get through legitimate means. And Democrats believe it’s absolutely imperative that they the end this cycle of periodic hostage crises that undermine the nation’s wellbeing.
This fight, in other words, is about establishing a precedent. Republicans want a treat so that they can demand another concession the next time it’s time to raise the debt limit, and another the time after that, and so on. If there is no treat, the GOP says, then Republicans will push the nation into default.
Democrats want this madness to end – Congress should simply do its job, without threats of political violence. The bipartisan Senate deal respected this basic principle, while the House Republican alternative deliberately rejects this principle.
The Senate GOP’s demands are legitimate, because they are being made in negotiations which are not occurring in a context where Republicans are presuming the threat of disaster gives them unilateral leverage. The Senate talks accept as a given that default won’t happen and are centered on horse-trading within that context. The House GOP’s demands are extortionate, because they continue to be premised on the idea – again, one rooted in genuine views House Republicans hold about acceptable governing norms – that Dems should fork over unilateral concessions on Obamacare, because if they don’t, the consequence will be economic disaster.
You don’t need to side with one or the other camp in order to acknowledge the basic contours of this argument, or of this overall situation.
Both sides want to establish a precedent. Republicans want to normalize holding the debt ceiling hostage and threatening Americans with deliberate harm in exchange for whatever policy concessions the GOP is seeking at that moment. Democrats want to prevent lawmakers from imposing these threats on the country again.
In this model, it’s not about whether Democrats are wedded to the medical-device tax; it’s about ensuring that Congress meets its obligations without any ransom whatsoever. That’s what some of the Beltway media struggles with, but it’s also what this entire week’s political disputes are about.