To a casual observer of American politics the ongoing government shutdown and prospect of a cataclysmic debt default in the next two weeks may look like just another round of “DC dysfunction” between two parties hopelessly polarized and ideologically divided. It’s not. While the government shutdown is nominally about the Republican crusade against Obamacare, the issues at stake are far bigger than one law or even one president or one Congress. In reality, the psychodrama playing out in Washington is about the future of democracy in America.
And no, I’m not exaggerating. Unless the GOP’s brand of extortion politics is thwarted, America’s democratic institutions will be so badly subverted that the nation will simply find itself in the position of staggering from one manufactured crisis to another with potentially both political parties threatening economic and political Armageddon if they don’t get their way. That is, quite simply, no way to run a democracy and it’s why the only option facing President Obama and the Democratic party is to win this showdown and force the GOP to concede defeat.
It’s important to understand at the outset that US democracy, for all of it many flaws, is one based on the idea of political compromise. In a system with so many obstacles to legislative outcomes – two houses of Congress, a separate executive branch and tons of minor obstruction points in each institution – there really is no other way to get things done.
That has dramatically changed in just the past few years. It’s not that compromise was always achievable in the past (the failure to break the Southern block on civil rights legislation is an obvious example), it’s that the search for common ground has simply been thrown asunder, replaced instead by extortion politics.
For example, traditionally, raising the debt limit has been something of a pro forma exercise in Congress, done multiple times (sometimes begrudgingly) to ensure that the federal government can continue to issue debt and thus pay its obligations. But beginning in 2011, the Republican party came to see the debt limit as a tool for what they could not accomplish either at the ballot box or through the legislative process – namely an instrument for political blackmail.
The result was a set of protracted negotiations between Congress and the White House in the summer of 2011, all conducted with the prospect of debt default (which would occur if the debt limit was not raised) hanging over the head of official Washington.
The result was the Budget Control Act, a pernicious piece of legislation that trimmed the federal budget by billions of dollars and led to sequestration – a set of mandatory spending cuts that has hamstrung the economic recovery and caused untold and unnecessary distress for millions of Americans. Unsatisfied with just that policy outcome, Republicans are now upping the ante – and using not just the debt limit but also the budget to get their way.
Once upon a time, government shutdowns occurred because both parties could not agree on budgetary priorities. Ironically, that isn’t even the issue today as both sides have agreed on the basic parameters of a continuing resolution to fund the US government. Rather this is about Obamacare, which Republicans have been unable to thwart though the legal, elective or legislative process (and satisfy their goal of denying healthcare coverage to millions of Americans). So now Republicans are holding the federal government as a hostage to get Democrats to agree to any possible concession that would weaken Obamacare. First their goal was fully defunding the legislation; then it was delaying it a year; now it appears to be repealing certain parts of the bill, including the employer subsidies for their own congressional employees’ health care coverage (because nothing says compassionate conservatism like screwing over your own employees to make a political point).
But the GOP brinkmanship over Obamacare is nothing compared to what they are asking for this year in return for raising the debt limit. Unlike 2011, when they were demanding a dramatic reduction in government spending, they are now insisting on the full implementation of their policy agenda.
No, I’m not exaggerating.
Here are the GOP’s demands for extending the nation’s debt limit and preventing an economic catastrophe that would derail the fragile US recovery, likely spark a recession and fundamentally weaken America’s economic competitiveness and in turn, national security: One year debt limit increase-Not a dollar amount increase, but suspending the debt limit until the end of December 2014 (similar to what we did earlier this year). -Want the year-long to align with the year delay of Obamacare.
One year Obamacare delay
Tax reform instructions-Similar to a bill we passed last fall, laying out broad from Ryan Budget principles for what tax reform should look like. -Gives fast track authority for tax reform legislation.
Energy and regulatory reforms to promote economic growth-Includes pretty much every jobs bill we have passed this year and last Congress-All of these policies have important positive economic effects.-Energy provisions: Keystone Pipeline, Coal Ash regulations, Offshore drilling, Energy production on federal lands, EPA Carbon regulations-Regulatory reform: REINS Act, Regulatory process reform, Consent decree reform, Blocking Net Neutrality
Mandatory spending reforms-Mostly from the sequester replacement bills we passed last year-Federal Employee retirement reform-Ending the Dodd-Frank bailout fund-Transitioning CFPB funding to Appropriations-Child Tax Credit Reform to prevent fraud-Repealing the Social Services Block grant
Health spending reforms-Means testing Medicare-Repealing a Medicaid provider tax gimmick-Tort reform-Altering disproportion share hospitals-Repealing the Public Health trust Fund
As Jonathan Chait points out, this is basically Mitt Romney’s economic agenda. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, Romney is the Republican presidential candidate who lost last year’s presidential election by around 5 million votes. What Republicans are doing here is basically saying to the president (the guy who won by 5 million votes) “implement our policy agenda or we will cause a catastrophic debt default”.
That isn’t governing. It isn’t democracy. It’s a shakedown.
That Republicans would even risk the possibility of default to get their way should, in an ideal world (or at least one in which Americans paid more than passing attention to their government), invalidate their credentials as a political party. Since that’s unlikely to happen, the only appropriate course of action for President Obama and the Democrats to take is not simply to resist the Republican’s ransom demands, but, in fact, to force them to cave in and pass a clean debt limit extension.
If they don’t, Republicans will do it over and over and over again. Just as they are doing it again right now after they got a quarter loaf from the president in 2011. Moreover, what reason would there be for Republicans to ever moderate their politics? They wouldn’t even need to win presidential elections. As long as they could hold on to their majority in the House (a majority lubricated by gerrymandered and polarized districts that encourage Republicans to take even more radical positions to appeal to their conservative supporters), they could simply hold the country hostage every couple of years to get their way.
This debate is not your garden-variety political crisis. It’s the battle for the long-term viability of American democracy, and it’s a battle that the Democrats simply must win even if it means risking default.
And no, I’m not exaggerating.