National Review reported yesterday that House Republicans are eyeing a dangerous strategy in the fall: they intend to tie their crusade to destroy the federal health care system to a new debt-ceiling hostage standoff. I made the case earlier that this is cause for genuine alarm.
On the flip side, there’s Brian Beutler, one of my very favorite writers, who sees this as “just another crazy thing the GOP has to do to tame its wing-nuts,” and who insistss there’s really nothing for the rest of us to worry about. It’s all just a “bluff” intended to “appease … radicals.”
I’m not simplistically arguing that because Congress has managed to avoid full blown crises for the past two and a half years, we should assume they’ll never allow one. If each heated confrontation carries a non-zero chance that we’ll reach a flashpoint, then eventually we will. But I do think, for now, that Boehner has a fail-safe. And if he didn’t we’d know about it.
The way things have worked for the past year is that Boehner’s always cleared non-optional items (perhaps after a brief theatrical interlude) even if it’s meant Democrats provide most of the votes. He’s violated the Hastert rule. Now that Congress is in the midst of a debate over a deadline-free issue like immigration reform, Boehner’s back to the Hastert rule. But the must-pass stuff is different.
In Beutler’s vision, Republicans will huff and puff for a while, but the bluster won’t amount to much. Boehner knows he can’t push the nation into default, and the Speaker doesn’t really want to trash the full faith and credit of the United States, so when push comes to shove, the House will vote to raise the debt ceiling, probably by ignoring the Hastert Rule, because everyone knows the House has to vote to raise the debt ceiling. The alternative – lawmakers crashing the economy on purpose – is unthinkable, right-wing threats notwithstanding.
In candor, if I were a betting man, I’d say Beutler’s prediction will probably turn out to be correct. But I’d nevertheless caution against underreacting to the Republicans’ attempts at extortion politics.
Indeed, let’s not forget that in early 2011, Speaker Boehner had absolutely no interest in holding the debt ceiling hostage. None. He didn’t want to use it for leverage; he didn’t want a crisis; he didn’t want to make demands or play games with this loaded weapon at all. And then something predictable happened: Boehner got pushed around by his right-wing caucus, and the Speaker, against his instincts, pushed the nation deliberately closer to the brink.
Throughout the spring of 2011, the political world, Wall Street, and even foreign observers made the same assumption: “Congressional Republicans are crazy, but they’re not insane. Even these guys wouldn’t actually create such a terrible crisis on purpose.”
But therein lies the point: they did create the crisis. They knew having the debate would hurt the country, but they did it anyway. And immediately afterwards – literally, just days later – congressional Republican leaders said they were eager to do it again.
Two years later, here we are, with the same congressional Republicans talking about pulling the same dangerous stunt. And once again, we’re hearing predictions, “Don’t panic; cooler heads will prevail. They always do.”
I certainly hope so. But there’s a gun on the stage, and I seem to recall an adage about it having to go off eventually.
For Beutler the Hastert Rule, and Boehner’s willingness to ignore it when something’s important, is the pressure valve that will likely save the day. Again, I hope this is correct. But let’s be cautious about making assumptions about House GOP leaders doing the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do. In Beutler’s model, the weak House Speaker will tell his own caucus, again, “I know I said I’d honor the Hastert Rule, but I’ve decided to ignore it on something you guys care about deeply. Sorry, but you’ll just have to deal with it.”
Part of game theory is making predictions about rational actors. But Boehner is an incompetent actor, whose hold on power is tenuous, whose ability to move bills and votes is suspect, and whose understanding of policy details is, at best, unsophisticated.
Will this all work out in the end? Probably. Maybe. Hopefully. Honestly, it has to. But with a potential crisis on the horizon, making assumptions about what will happen with a radicalized House majority with weak leadership is inherently tricky.