Hostage Taking Not Like Regular Negotiating

Not a regular business deal.
Not a regular business deal. Photo: Working Title/Polygram/The Kobal Collection

The fiscal showdown is complicated because it wraps up not only major differences in policy goals but also an equally large disagreement about what methods of obtaining those goals are legitimate. Republicans say the debt ceiling is merely leverage, and using it is at worst just a slightly more aggressive form of regular politics.

The Democratic position is that using the debt ceiling to extract policy concessions of any kind is inherently dangerous and illegitimate. Using the debt ceiling as leverage means threatening not to raise it, and threatening not to raise it means, potentially, not raising it, which would have unpredictable but potentially devastating and permanent effects. Threatening not to raise the debt ceiling is not like threatening to block a health-care bill. Republicans argue that passing a health-care bill is worse than not passing one. They don’t argue that not passing a debt ceiling increase is better than passing one. That’s what makes it a ransom rather than a regular political negotiation: One party is using the threat of doing something that it concedes will wreak irreparable harm.

Moreover, to entangle the debt ceiling in negotiations over other policy is to open up a risk of negotiation failure. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru urged Republicans to settle for a nice, tidy little ransom, but there is no such thing as a ransom demand that is inherently small enough for the ransom-payer to consider reasonable and large enough for the ransom taker to consider worthwhile. Negotiations are tricky, especially when they’re followed by multiple votes in two legislative bodies.

And even if you can neatly settle this negotiation, establishing the precedent that the debt ceiling gives the opposition party a chance to wrangle concessions from the president will open up indefinite future hostage negotiations, and the risk of failure will asymptotically approach one. For that reason, the Obama administration’s stated goal, even beyond the substantive policy outcomes, is to smother the pattern completely so that, when the next debt ceiling vote comes along, there is no suggestion at all of entangling it in a separate policy dispute. (Whether Obama can hold to that position, rather than succumb to the short-term temptation of striking a deal that delays the crisis for another year or so, is a separate question.)

Like many conservatives, Ponnuru objects to this whole line of thinking.  His argument is that, essentially, once Democrats have agreed to enter into hostage negotiations, they become equally complicit in any potential failure:

If the Republican House passes a bill to raise the debt ceiling and cut spending, and Democratic objections to the spending cuts prevent a bill from becoming law, it won’t be possible to attribute the failure to raise the debt ceiling solely to the Republicans. But even if Chait can’t see this, surely he can see that it would be true if Democrats were to say that they would support a debt-ceiling increase tied to both spending cuts and tax increases — which was the position they took during the 2011 negotiations, to no protests from Chait or anyone else that they too were threatening a hostage.

This is completely insane. The two parties disagree about the appropriate size and scope of the federal government. They don’t disagree about the debt ceiling. It’s true that Democrats in 2011 decided they could try to reason with Republican hostage-takers — you want to cut the deficit? So do we? Let’s compromise! Then they eventually realized Republicans didn’t want to compromise, and in fact, the crisis was only averted by shoving it off a year and a half into the future by setting automatic cuts that neither party could remotely agree on how to replace.

So while it’s true that Democrats did try to haggle over the ransom price, they were not themselves threatening not to raise the debt ceiling. Their only “threat” was not to pay everything Republicans were asking of them. To portray haggling over a ransom as the moral equivalent of taking a hostage is the sort of reasoning that would only appeal to, I’m sorry to say, a hostage-taker himself.

Ponnuru also objects to the comparison itself. “On the Democratic side,” he pleads, “no longer likening the other side to criminals would be helpful.” But the idea that this exercise is a form of illegitimate extortion, not normal politics, is the whole point of it. If Ponnuru finds it offensive to liken the debt ceiling to a hostage, he should complain to people like Republican Mitch McConnell, whose limited virtues include occasional lapses into candor:

I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming.