Taking the politics of extortion past the breaking point

Taking the politics of extortion past the breaking point
Taking the politics of extortion past the breaking point
Associated Press

With the House and Senate both having passed budget resolutions, the next step in the process should be a conference committee, which Republican leaders said they wanted. Recently, however, they changed their mind and now refuse to allow the process to proceed.

Why? I’ve worked under the assumption this is the result of GOP lawmakers feeling apprehension about their unpopular ideas and fearing a public backlash. But the Washington Post reports there may be a little more to it.

[The shrinking deficit] might seem like good news, but it is unraveling Republican plans to force a budget deal before Congress takes its August break. Instead, the fiscal fight appears certain to bleed into the fall, when policymakers will face another multi-pronged crisis that pairs the need for a higher debt limit and the fresh risk of default with the threat of a full-scale government shutdown, which is also looming Oct. 1.

In the meantime, Republicans face a listless summer, with little appetite for compromise but no leverage to shape an agreement. Without that leverage, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday, there is no point in opening formal budget negotiations between the House and the Senate, because Democrats have no reason to consider the kind of far-reaching changes to Medicare and the U.S. tax code that Republicans see as fundamental building blocks of a deal.

“The debt limit is the backstop,” Ryan said before taking the stage at a debt summit organized by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in Washington.

I realize talking about budgets, conference committees, and debt ceilings is dry. This no doubt strikes some readers as inside baseball, of little interest to anyone other than political junkies and wonks.

But I hope folks will take a moment to consider what Ryan and his colleagues are saying here. They’re admitting, publicly and without shame, that they can’t engage in budget negotiations unless they can also threaten to deliberately crash the economy. GOP lawmakers want a “backstop” that will give them “leverage” in talks – whereas the conference committee is ostensibly about finding a bipartisan, bicameral compromise, Republicans need the possibility of a brutal self-inflicted crisis to hang over the process.

And if they can’t have it, they won’t engage in the budget process at all.

Wait, it gets worse.

Congressional Republicans made a series of assumptions, all of which have turned out to be wrong. They assumed Senate Democrats couldn’t pass a budget. They assumed Democrats wouldn’t want a budget process considered under regular order. And they assumed the budget talks, if they occurred, would happen around the same time as the need for a debt-ceiling increase.

GOP lawmakers were terribly disappointed, then, to see Senate Democrats do exactly what they were asked to do, and the economy improved quickly enough to push off the debt-limit deadline until fall.

But with their plans foiled, Republicans are stuck with no Plan B, no leverage, and no credible threat. Consider how remarkable this is:

[S]enior Senate Republicans, including several who recently dined with Obama and huddled with administration officials, conceded that it may be tough to bring their colleagues to the table too far ahead of the debt-ceiling deadline.

“I think there’s a better atmosphere for a solution than there’s been in the past, but I’m a little worried about people here in the Senate having fiscal fatigue. There isn’t any sense of urgency right now,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of three senators who joined Obama on Monday for a round of golf.

“We need to realize this debt ceiling is out there. It’s inevitable. It’s coming. And [the later deadline] should not relieve pressure,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. But “sometimes we don’t want to act until a gun is at our heads.”

Think about that for a second. The ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee is willing to admit – out loud and on the record – that there can’t be a budget process unless he and his Republican colleagues can threaten to trash the full faith and credit of the United States on purpose.

And here’s the kicker: Republicans aren’t even asking for anything specific yet. They know they want to hold the nation hostage, but they’re not sure why, and haven’t figured out what their demands are. Jonathan Bernstein argued persuasively yesterday that we’re looking at “extortion for the sake of extortion.”

The House crazy caucus is demanding not debt reduction, not spending cuts, not budget balancing, but blackmail itself. That’s really the demand: The speaker and House Republican leaders absolutely must use the debt limit as extortion. What should they use it to get? Apparently, that’s pretty much up for grabs, as long as it seems really, really, big – which probably comes down to meaning that the Democrats really, really don’t like it.

It’s the extortion that’s the point. Not the policy.

I’ve run out of adjectives to describe how crazy this is, but I’ll just conclude with this: those pundits who assume Republicans are a mainstream political party, and it’s a mystery as to why President Obama hasn’t had more success negotiating with these folks, just aren’t paying close enough attention.

Paul Ryan and Budget

Taking the politics of extortion past the breaking point