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How the GOP governs through perma-crisis

America's perennial debt ceiling crisis has been postponed, not averted.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

America's perennial debt ceiling crisis has been postponed, not averted. On Wednesday, the House is set to vote for a piece of legislation that will "suspend the debt limit" through May 18, meaning that we have until around April before Washington DC descends into yet another manufactured budget panic.

In fact, this spring's inevitable crisis will be nothing new: It's just the latest incarnation of a perpetual state of pseudo-emergency which stretches back to the summer of 2011. That was the season of Debt Ceiling Crisis 1.0, when the Republicans first announced that they would only allow the United States to pay its debts in exchange for future spending cuts. Disaster was (mostly) averted when Congress passed the 2011 Budget Control Act, which raised the debt ceiling while putting place a slate of automatic cuts set to kick in at the beginning of 2013, unless nullified by further legislation.

Those cuts, of course, became a major component of what was later called the "fiscal cliff," the next stage of the perma-crisis. Savvy political heavies insisted that the looming spending cuts would be a disaster, and needed to be replaced by different—potentially harsher—spending cuts. So we got another deal to delay spending cuts by two months. Meanwhile, the federal government whooshed past the deadline for extending the debt limit on December 31, though Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner instituted a "debt issuance suspension period" which meant that the federal government would not actually exceed the limit until February 28.

Which brings us to our current state of affairs: Congress, faced with an impending debt ceiling crisis, is trying to set aside the matter until May. Soon they'll be working to prevent automatic spending cuts as well. Any of this sound familiar?

Of course, the panic is purely man-made. If the United States eliminated its debt ceiling—a theoretically simple thing to do—then it would never again face a debt ceiling crisis. In fact, Congress could even keep the debt ceiling so long as it returned to its historical practice of raising the limit as part of an annual routine. Instead, Congress has adopted a new routine: Republicans make their demands, Democrats denounce them as hostage takers, and the two parties ink a deal to prolong the standoff for another few months.

The only question is whether all of this is the product of a clever long-term strategy, or just the result of short-term incentives. The Democrats, at least, seem to be acting in a purely reactive fashion: Time and time again, the Obama administration has signaled that it is willing to make some remarkable concessions (such as raising the Medicare eligibility age or reducing Social Security disbursements) in order to prevent whatever the emergency of the week happens to be.

Republicans have remained intransigent in the face of such an accommodating negotiating partner. One of the reasons for that intransigence is obvious: The ideological commitment of the Tea Party caucus and the party's base to truly radical budget gouging, beyond what the Democratic Party could ever accept. But the perpetual panic cycle may also just suit the GOP politically. It allows them to constantly play the budget warriors, which appeals to both their donors and their grassroots supporters. It aggravates Democratic supporters, who watch their own party acclimate itself to continually escalating demands for austerity.

Perhaps best of all, it monopolizes the attention of both the legislature and the media. The Democrats aren't left much time to enact a positive agenda when they're busy defusing a time bomb; so instead of turning the bomb off, Republicans have every reason to extend the fuse. Similarly, having a juicy crisis to deal with absolves legislators from all parties of having to tackle other priorities. Deferring the crisis leaves all relevant parties with a pure voting record, unsullied by any firm commitments on spending or revenue.

The latest short-term debt limit extension is being framed as a "cave" by the Republicans. But even though there are no cuts in the bill that's currently on the table, the Republicans are getting exactly what they want: In a couple of months, they can demand their cuts again and trigger yet another of Washington's collective anxiety attacks.