Thursday, August 04, 2011

The debt ceiling stickup as precedent...or not

As the debt ceiling stickup lurched toward its traumatic climax and please-no-one resolution, the laments have been many that a dreadful precedent has been set for government by extortion. Jonathan Chait has been eloquent about this:
The problem is that, even if we get through this crisis with little damage, the debt ceiling is still sitting there, a weapon that will one day explode. Indeed, if there's one good reason to downgrade U.S. debt, it's that House Republicans have discovered a kind of doomsday device that, if not used this time, will probably be used eventually. Any use of the debt ceiling to extort policy concessions will encourage subsequent uses.
And right on cue, once the deal was done, Mitch McConnell heralded the new nuclear norm:
What we have done, Larry, also is set a new template. In the future, any president, this one or another one, when they request us to raise the debt ceiling, it will not be clean anymore. This is just the first step. This, we anticipate, will take us into 2013. Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again. Then we will go through the process again and see what we can continue to achieve in connection with these debt ceiling requests of presidents to get our financial house in order.
Many see in this precedent evidence of U.S. decline. Here's Ezra Klein, commenting on McConnell's boast above (same link):

Hearing McConnell’s comments last night, economist Jared Bernstein was shocked. “This is not the way of great nations,” he wrote. I disagree. The political system that doesn’t modernize and eventually finds its vulnerabilities exploited by interest-group pressure, internal divisions and reckless politicians? This is certainly the way of great nations. It’s the way they fall.
And James Fallows, riffing on yet another decline warning, from David Frum:
As a matter of political norms, we've been through a change that may be hard to reverse. In essence: moves that were technically legal, but were "not done" because they were too brutal or destructive, have now been done -- and have paid off. It's like the Indiana Jones scene where a sword fighter is warming up for a duel and Indy pulls out his gun to shoot him dead. No one will enter a fight without a gun again. As David Frum put it today:
The debt ceiling debate feels like one of those tragic episodes out of the history of the fall of republics. To gain their point on a budget matter, Republicans did something unprecedented in the annals of American government. They made a bargaining chip out of the public credit of the United States. In a well-functioning democracy, certain threats are just not used [not a rule but a norm], and the threat to force the country into default should rank high on the list of unacceptable threats.

Yet congressional Republicans not only issued the threat, they did so successfully. They have changed the rules of the game in ways that will have ramifications for a long time. Maybe Democrats will copy them. Or maybe Republicans will do it again. Either way -- something that was once unthinkable has become thinkable.
I have myself worried ( here and here, and in a note to Fallows, cited in the post above) about Republicans' progressive destruction since the early 90s of the norms and taboos of U.S. governance.  Kevin Drum put together a memorable chronicle of this destruction, climaxing thus:
More recently, both judicial and executive appointments have been routinely held up just because they can be. Hell, Senate Republicans have now promised to block any nominee to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau just because they don't like the law and want it changed. And then there's the latest example: the debt ceiling fight. In the past, this was pretty well established kabuki: the minority party gives a few speeches about the recklessness of the majority, the president weighs in to say the U.S. has to honor its debts, and then the debt ceiling is raised. But once again, Republicans have figured out that old traditions are just that: traditions. There's no law that says you can't change them.

So where does this go from here? What's the next Capitol Hill norm that some bright young up-and-comer will figure out is just a norm — one that only naive schoolboys need to pay attention to? Beats me. But whatever it is,Republicans will find it. And our political system will grind ever close to a complete halt.
The broad expectation is that debt ceiling standoffs will be the new normal, and that, per Drum, the GOP will find new norms to blow through.   But is it at least possible that the opposite will prove true?  This deal-making process aroused deep disgust across most of the political spectrum -- and the deal itself pleased almost no one.  Hostage-taking is becoming a common term of opprobrium for Democrats.  Here's Barbara Boxer on the FAA shutdown:
“This is their modus operandi...Government by crisis that they make up, government by hostage-taking, government by threat.”
That brings us to the central question about any destructive trend: is it linear or cyclical? Stagflation looked like evidence of national decline. So did the denouement of the Vietnam War, the rise of out-of-wedlock motherhood (to some), and the long, relentless rise in crime from the late sixties into the early 90s.  Democracies, however, adapt to the inevitable wreckage of old norms and often reverse the damage wrought by that not-always-creative destruction.

In the ordinary course of things, one would hope that the electorate would discipline a party that swerves into extremism; that the party's policies would then moderate; and that a degree of policy convergence would in turn drive a new set of rules for political warfare, that would in turn generate new norms.

That was, in part, the promise of Obama. He was going to remind us of our common goals and values (not red states or blue states...United States), assume good faith in the opposition, and, after November 2010, draw on old precedents of bipartisan deal-making  to address our core challenges with bipartisan legislation.  He carried this quest so far as to embrace deficit reduction negotiations under threat of debt ceiling-triggered default as "a unique opportunity to do something big."  Burned in this effort by Boehner's inability to carry the tea party with him one-quarter of the way across the party divide, Obama, in the eyes of many supporters, was left looking like "a dignified sword fighter, against foes with guns in both hands," as Fallows put it, completing his metaphor above (though some would scrap the 'dignified' part).

We're many moves from the end, however. If Obama does win reelection, and if the Republicans are punished at the polls for their extremism, as seems to be happening now in Wisconsin, the wheel may turn again.  At this dark hour, it takes some audacity to hope.

Related posts
Why Gingrich matters: continuing Zasloff's thought
Decay...decline...yada, we're fine (?)
Question for Fallows: can the U.S. 'muddle through' to structural change?

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