The Case for Freaking Out Over Congress

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They have nice suits — they must know what they're doing, right? Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

How terrible and frightening will Washington be this fall? Pretty terrible and frightening, I say. Ezra Klein agrees. On the other hand, a host of counterintuitive cases has come forth from Brian Beutler, Greg Sargent, Jonathan Bernstein, and John Harwood. They argue that the latest Republican threats are all a kabuki act, this has happened before, John Boehner has found a way out of it, and he’ll find a way out again. Harwood adds some useful reporting detail laying out what a negotiated settlement might look like.

I agree at least in part with all their analyses, but a few points pertain:

  1. There certainly is a kabuki ritual in which conservative activists who can’t support any plausible deal have to condemn Republican leaders for their treachery. The way the game works is that the right-wing nuts set the terms of debate out at a certain place, usually understanding the final deal won’t reach it, but in so doing encourage their side to reach as far as possible. In this case, they have set the opening terms so far out on a limb that no plausible outcome can remotely approach it.
  2. Any argument that explicitly or implicitly assumes Boehner knows what he’s doing loses me right there. A widely shared frustration by all sides is that Boehner thinks day to day, constantly blundering into traps of his own making. He is not an enigmatic tactical genius hiding behind a hack persona. He's just a hack.
  3. Boehner and the GOP leadership clearly want to make a deal on immigration. But the fact that they want an immigration deal perversely makes it harder for them to negotiate the debt ceiling and the budget — my analogy here is that if they’re going to try to make their members swallow an immigration shit sandwich, they’re not going to want to feed them a bunch of other shit sandwiches first.
  4. The possibilities for a deal aren’t getting any easier. Both parties escaped the main issues in 2011 by agreeing to cut discretionary spending, thus avoiding the fundamental taboos of tax increases or cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They both understand they have hit the wall, cutting discretionary spending farther than even many Republicans are willing to go.
  5. Harwood sketches out a possible budget deal:

Under one situation sketched out by Democrats, temporary funding for discretionary programs like Pentagon spending would be set just below $1 trillion — closer to the $967 billion in the House Republican budget than to the $1.058 trillion in the Senate Democratic budget.

The aim of negotiations after that would be to come up with new savings approaching $200 billion.

Part of the savings would come from entitlements, but programs like farm subsidies, rather than the more politically volatile Social Security and Medicare. Part would come from new revenues, but “user fees” tied to special government services, rather than broad-based tax increases.

Sounds plausible in theory. But farm subsidies only account for about $20 billion in direct outlays, and it’s very doubtful Republicans would eliminate them entirely. Even if this is the basis for a plan, it’s not even clear the terms of this potential deal have any real Republican support at all. Harwood cites Democrats as the source, and finding Democrats who are willing to negotiate has never been the problem. (There have been all kinds of bipartisan solutions floated before, some of which even had Republican support — but none that Boehner could pass without risking his own job.)

Now, I think it’s highly unlikely, though not impossible, Congress will fail to lift the debt ceiling. But dysfunctions, shutdowns, coup attempts against Boehner? That sort of chaos seems pretty likely.