Almost immediately after the 2014 elections, the conventional wisdom among much of the Beltway media was that power would change Republicans for the better. By taking control of both chambers of Congress, the argument went, GOP lawmakers would have no choice but to become a responsible governing party. They would prove, at long last, that they’re capable of acting like grown-ups.
Just one month later, there’s already ample evidence that those assumptions about Republican maturity were completely wrong.
Republican Tom Price, the incoming House Budget Committee chairman, said his party could demand steep spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling next year, the most provocative comments by a senior GOP member to date on how negotiations could play out.The Georgia congressman, during an hour-long briefing with reporters Friday, said the expected mid-2015 debate over whether to raise or suspend the debt ceiling offered Republicans an opportunity to make a sizable imprint on government policy.
The far-right Georgian added that he wants to see Republicans bring back the so-called “Boehner rule” – an arbitrary policy that demands a dollar in cuts for every dollar increase in the debt limit – that even Republicans recognized as ridiculous a couple of years ago.
“I prefer to think about it as opportunities and pinch points,” Price said, apparently using “pinch points” as a euphemism for “causing deliberate national harm.”
It’s worth emphasizing that Price isn’t some random, fringe figure, shouting from the sidelines – the Georgia Republican next month will fill Paul Ryan’s shoes as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
In other words, it matters that Price envisions a strategy in which Republicans threaten to hurt Americans on purpose unless Democrats meet the GOP’s demands.
That said, Price would be wise to start lowering expectations – his intention to create a deliberate crisis will almost certainly fail.
The gist of the plan is effectively identical to the scheme hated by House Republicans in 2011. Next year, the Treasury Department will alert Congress to the fact that it’s time to borrow the funds necessary to pay for the things Congress has already bought. As Price sees it, the GOP-led Congress will tell the Obama administration, “We’ll cooperate, but only if you slash public investments. If not, we’ll default on our debts, crash the economy, and destroy the full faith and credit of the United States.”
Why Price or anyone else would want to slash public investments right now – hurting the economy, just as the recovery gains steam – is a bit of a mystery.
Regardless, the problem with this ridiculously dangerous and politically violent scheme is that President Obama has already said he won’t play the GOP’s game. Indeed, earlier this year, Republican leaders suggested they would once again hold the debt ceiling hostage, but the White House called their bluff and refused to pay any ransom.
Soon after, Republicans backed down, and a new precedent was set.
Hostage crises only work when there’s a credible threat. In this case, Democrats have to actually believe that Republicans would do deliberate harm to the country unless Dems paid a ransom. But once Obama realized that GOP leaders had no intention of crashing the economy on purpose, the fear disappeared and the incentive to hold the nation hostage again vanished with it.
On Friday, Tom Price said in effect, “Maybe we can go back to the way things were in 2011?” And the polite response from the Oval Office and sensible adults everywhere will be, simply, “No.”
Let’s not forget that incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently explained, “There will be no government shutdown or default on the national debt.” And with those simple words, it became quite obvious that attempts to exploit the debt ceiling won’t work because Republicans won’t follow through on their threats to harm the hostage.
Someone probably ought to explain all of this to the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee.