It was, to my mind, the worst thing an American major party has done, at least in domestic politics, since the Civil War. Last summer, congressional Republicans held the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, threatening to impose a catastrophe on all of us, on purpose, to achieve a specific (and unnecessary) policy goal.
It was a move without parallel. The entirety of a party threatened to deliberately hurt the country unless their rivals paid a hefty ransom – in this case, debt reduction. It didn’t matter that Republicans were largely responsible for the debt in the first place, and it didn’t matter that Republicans routinely raised the debt ceiling dozens of times over the last several decades.
This wasn’t just another partisan dispute; it was a scandal for the ages. This one radical scheme helped lead to the first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt; it riled financial markets and generated widespread uncertainty about the stability of the American system; and it severely undermined American credibility on the global stage. Indeed, in many parts of the world, observers didn’t just lose respect for us, they were actually laughing at us.
It’s the kind of thing that should have scarred the Republican Party for a generation. Not only did that never happen, the Republican hostage takers are already vowing to create this identical crisis all over again, on purpose.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will threaten Tuesday that Congress will not raise the debt limit next year without spending cuts greater than the size of the debt ceiling increase.
According to excerpts of the remarks Boehner will deliver to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation fiscal summit on Tuesday afternoon, the Ohio lawmaker will “insist on my simple principle of cuts and reforms greater than the debt limit increase.” […]
He will also tell the audience: “We shouldn’t dread the debt limit. We should welcome it. It’s an action-forcing event in a town that has become infamous for inaction.”
It’s not hyperbolic to characterize this as madness. Boehner is, in no uncertain terms, announcing that he and his party will deliberately hurt the country – and he’s calling his hostage-taking strategy an “action-forcing event.”
At a certain level, it’s true that holding a gun to someone’s head forces “action,” but it’s also true that such aggression tears at the fabric of the body politic.
I should emphasize that Boehner’s comments don’t come as a surprise. After the crisis was resolved last summer, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein explained, “Those who have engaged in hostage-taking – threatening the economy and the full faith and credit of the U.S. Treasury to get their way – will conclude that their strategy worked. They will feel emboldened to pursue it again every time that we have to raise the debt limit in the future.”
And that’s exactly what has happened. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Fox News that the GOP-created crisis “set the template for the future.” He vowed, “We’ll be doing it all over” in 2013.
In case anyone’s forgotten, over the last 72 years – before 2011 – Congress raised the debt ceiling 89 times. Lawmakers from both parties, working with presidents from both parties, treated this as routine housekeeping. Preconditions have never been applied to this process, and neither party has ever used the law to hold the nation’s full faith and credit hostage. Clean debt-ceiling votes weren’t always popular, but they’ve been a standard American norm for generations.
Last year, radicalized Republicans changed the game, and they apparently have no intention of going back. This wasn’t a one-time hostage strategy, threatening the nation’s wellbeing in a fit of partisan rage; this was the creation of a new norm, to be repeated forever more. Why? Because the dangerous scheme worked – when radicalism is rewarded, the result is more radicalism.
Update: Incidentally, it’s also worth realizing that Boehner is demanding another debt-ceiling deal less than a year after breaking the terms of the agreement he reached last summer. President Obama is well positioned to ask a simple question: “If you won’t keep your word and honor your own agreements, why should I negotiate with you?”