What are we to make of the fact that two of the top priorities for the 112th Congress, convening for the first time today, involve an irrelevant charade and an irresponsible threat?
Repealing health care, a pure symbolic activity, is one of the first votes scheduled for next week. House Republicans know their bill will not pass the Senate or clear a presidential veto. Maybe they want to get their irrelevant votes out of the way early. But it gets worse.
The bigger story is the truly bizarre threat to freeze the debt ceiling, which could theoretically place the United States in default and spark a larger recession or economic crisis. Alarmingly, the idea is picking up traction among conservative Republicans. And on cue, political reporters have begun speculating that Obama must grant concessions to the fiscal-bully wing of the GOP.
"Some kind of compromise is the likely end-game here, and almost by definition, that compromise is likely to include cuts to domestic spending programs," explained a typical article about the standoff this week.
Yet even Obama, the Commander-in-Compromise, must understand the difference between bargaining for a mixed deal and meeting halfway between responsibility and total, deranged lunacy.
The notion that (some) Republicans are increasing their "leverage" by threatening an economic murder-suicide does not make sense, either. If you think the unthinkable, with Congress actually driving the US into another man-made economic crisis, it would be political suicide. (The 1995 government shutdown famously backfired on Republicans with less at stake. More on that in a moment.) Or if you imagine the more plausible path of Congress merely complaining before folding—the general pattern during recent crises, from the Patriot Act to Iraq to TARP—the fiscal bullies would just look soft to their base, and unserious to everyone else. To that end, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently warned Republicans to "be careful" or they could lose this round when Obama "call[s] their bluff." Indeed, the only way for Obama to falter would be to blink first—which would only empower and invite more bullying. "Weakness is provocative," as the thirteenth and twenty-first secretary of defense always said.
Obama is starting to get it, though. This weekend, the White House sent Austan Goolsbee on the Sunday shows to push back hard on the "insanity" of these threats, spelling out the catastrophic costs of an unprecedented default on US obligations. Meanwhile, Obama must see it’s a new era when supposedly "moderate" bargaining partners like Sen. Lindsay Graham are joining the crazy chorus. Graham is now threatening to freeze the debt ceiling unless he gets to cut Social Security—a dedicated retirement program that is not even linked to the national debt. That is not how Congress is supposed to legislate.
That’s really the bigger point here. The freshman class of Republicans may want to drastically cut the size of government, and restrict its ability to run schools, or build roads or patrol health insurance companies. Those are legitimate policy preferences.
To extract by threat what cannot be achieved through the democratic legislative process, however, is not legitimate. Indeed, some legal scholars have concluded that it is actually inappropriate for Congress to shut down the executive branch as a bargaining tool over policy disputes. Peter Shane, a law professor and director of the Center for Law, Policy and Social Science, proposed in a paper that the 1995 government shutdown constituted a new breed of "inter-branch aggression" that posed "a special threat to democratic legitimacy."
The 1994 revolutionaries, however, essentially liked the idea of shutting down the executive branch, and thought, wrongly, that it was also good politics. Today’s Republican revolutionaries are playing a very different game. They are threatening an outcome that no sane person could support, shutting down the entire economy and undermining the US’s global credibility to agitate for policies that even their new majority could not otherwise enact. That is no way to govern.