Why the debt-ceiling crisis is easy to avoid (and why it won’t matter)

Why the debt-ceiling crisis is easy to avoid (and why it won't matter)
Why the debt-ceiling crisis is easy to avoid (and why it won't matter)

I suspect there are plenty of Americans who never understood where the debt-ceiling crisis came from. After all, we’re talking about an obscure law that’s been around since 1937, and it never caused a crisis before, so why is it suddenly causing so much trouble now?

The answer, of course, is that radicalized congressional Republicans decided to turn the obscure law into a political weapon for the first time in American history, taking the full faith and credit of the United States – and the health of our economy – hostage. But that raises a separate question: aren’t there other hostages Republicans could take that would be less dangerous?

Kevin Drum had a good item on this yesterday, explaining why these crises are so unnecessary:

If Republicans want to fight over spending, they can instead fight over the budget. That would lead to a government shutdown a la 1995, followed by a deal of some kind. The pressure this puts on Obama is similar, but it’s far more defensible. Republicans aren’t refusing to pay their own bills and they aren’t recklessly putting the creditworthiness of the United States at risk.

Quite right. Raising the debt ceiling simply means allowing the United States to pay its bills for money that’s already been spent. If GOP lawmakers want a fight that leads to less debt and smaller deficits, they should have their tantrum when spending decisions are being made, not after. President Obama and Democrats would still have an incentive to work towards a deal, since they wouldn’t like government shutdowns.

So, why doesn’t this happen? Why don’t Republicans pick a different hostage, one in which the consequences of pulling the metaphorical trigger would be less catastrophic?

I can’t read GOP leaders’ minds, obviously, but I suspect it has something to do with motivations – Republicans could pick a reasonable hostage, but to guarantee action, they’re targeting the hostage Democrats take more seriously. It’s the difference between a villain pointing a gun at your neighbor vs. pointing a gun at your children.

Republican pundit Marc Thiessen, whose former boss raised the debt ceiling seven times without incident or precondition, put it this way.

Unlike with the fiscal cliff, Republicans have all the leverage when it comes to the debt limit. Today, Obama is perfectly willing to go over the fiscal cliff and blame the GOP for the resulting tax increases on the middle class. But when it comes to the debt limit, he does not have that luxury. He can’t default on our debt – the consequences are too catastrophic. So in the end he will cave.

Let’s be very clear about what Thiessen is proposing. By his reasoning, Republicans should threaten to hurt Americans. President Obama doesn’t want to see Americans hurt, ergo, he’ll “cave” to GOP demands so as to prevent Republicans from following through on their threats on forcing severe consequences on the nation on purpose.

Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the fact that conservative politics in 2012 has descended to a point of true madness. Marc Thiessen not only thinks this way, he has no qualms about writing it down and publishing it in one of the nation’s largest and most important newspapers.

For their part, Democrats have said they’re willing to negotiate with Republicans when it comes to the ongoing fiscal talks, and they’re willing to negotiate with Republicans when it comes to the next federal budget, but they simply will not negotiate on the debt ceiling.

We’ve all heard the phrase “we will not negotiate with terrorists,” and at this point, Democrats seem to be operating under a similar principle, saying they will not negotiate with those who would deliberately undermine the American economy and do harm to the country on purpose.

Republicans are confident that Dems will eventually blink, and give in to GOP demands because they care too much about the nation’s wellbeing. It’s going to be a dramatic game of chicken.