Jan 3, 2011
Same Sh*t, Different Year: Republican Hostage-Taking
It's only the third day of 2011, the new Congress hasn't even been sworn in yet, and already Republicans are setting the terms of the national political conversation and threatening to hold Americans hostage if they don't get their way. I'm talking about the issue of the debt ceiling, which seemed to be all anyone could talk about today. Maybe that's just because all the pundits are back at work after the holidays but nothing's actually happened in Washington, but in any case what it means is that the newest Republican cause celèbre has already set the tone for the new Congress. Some background: Congress has established a "debt ceiling," which limits the amount of debt the U.S. government can legally take on. We add to the national debt every year that we run a deficit (which is most years recently), so every few years Congress has to vote to raise the debt ceiling to enable the government to continue taking on debt. If we don't raise the debt ceiling, the U.S. government would default on its loans - an event that would be an absolute calamity for the American and world economies and which, quite frankly, will never actually be allowed to happen. But, times being what they are, some Republicans are threatening to block the debt ceiling increase when it comes up this spring. They claim it's because they are opposed to deficits and want to rein in government spending instead of increasing the national debt, but they also love-love-love to cut taxes which, you guessed it, increases the national debt. The issue is all over the news and blogosphere today because yesterday the Chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors went on This Week With Christine Amanpour and laid out just how absurdly dangerous these Republican threats are: "I don't see why anybody's talking about playing chicken with the debt ceiling....If we get to the point where you've damaged the full faith and credit of the United States, that would be the first default in history caused purely by insanity." Already, though, the Republicans have achieved what they really want, which is to set the terms of the debate for the new session of Congress so they can wrangle all their real desires out of the Democrats and President Obama. By threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling, they're effectively forcing the Democrats to make major policy concessions in order to get their affirmative votes for the increase. This is just how it went last month: by taking a firm stand and not wavering on the Bush tax cut renewal, they forced the Democrats to negotiate on their terms. So now, two days before the new session of Congress, the political world is abuzz with talk of the coming confrontation over the debt ceiling instead of talking about job creation, education, tax policy, infrastructure investment, or any of the other really crucial issues facing the country. This is just the way the Republicans want it: they've put themselves in a great negotiating position and, yet again, made the issue an abstract question of "big government spending" rather than being forced to actually create policies that would help real people. So here's what I really hope: I hope the Democrats stand firm on this issue and, yes, play chicken with the Republicans. For once I want the Democrats to refuse to give in, just like the Republicans always do. Whatever the Republicans demand in return for their "yes" votes on the debt ceiling increase, Democrats should just say no. Because I'm willing to bet that when the day comes, most Republicans are not going to be willing to actually cause the first government default in the history of the United States over this issue. It's a dangerous bet, but that's the problem - the Democrats are always so scared of the potential consequences that they don't push hard and long enough to see if the Republicans will fold. This time, I think they will - if only the Democrats hold out long enough.