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the national interest

Will Debt-Ceiling Extortion Ever Return?

Perhaps in a series of progressively less exciting sequels.

Democrats refused to trade the debt ceiling for policy concessions because, if they did, they would enshrine debt-ceiling extortion as a permanent part of divided government. Having won, the question becomes: Did they banish it forever? Will Republicans just come back next time around, demanding concessions anew, undaunted by their failure?

Felix Salmon argues for the latter interpretation, on the grounds that “you can’t kill revolutionary nihilism.” I would agree with that general sentiment. Every recent Republican defeat since 2008 has only encouraged the party to move even farther right. The broader conservative desire to smash things will probably remain intact, or even intensify, if that’s possible.

But will Republicans continue to hold the debt ceiling hostage indefinitely (or, at least, until a Republican occupies the White House)? I doubt it. The debt-ceiling fight was not brought on by Ted Cruz and his baying hordes. It was actually the preferred strategy of mainstream Republicans, especially Paul Ryan. The Ryanites opposed shutting the government down because they wanted to extort Obama with default. The crazies who favored the shutdown were actually willing to lift the debt ceiling so they could keep the shutdown going.

That is to say, debt-ceiling extortion was not the tool of Republican ultras, unwilling to acknowledge political limits. It was the tool of the calculating party leaders. They viewed the debt ceiling as a smart leverage play to fulfill their goal of winning concessions without giving any in return.

Now, it’s possible they’ll decide the plot could have worked if they hadn’t been forced into a government shutdown that weakened their standing at the same time. In that case, it might take one or two more unsuccessful debt-ceiling-extortion crises to dissuade them. But I do believe they will be dissuaded at some point, if they haven’t been already. Threatening the debt ceiling and getting nothing is not cost-free. You make your business supporters nervous. You anger your followers when you back down. Earlier this year, lots of conservatives were able to convince each other or themselves that they had won a glorious victory by “forcing” Senate Democrats to pass a formal budget. Nobody on the right is treating this episode as anything but a humiliating defeat.

Political leaders don’t like humiliating defeats. Republicans were dragged into the shutdown. They entered the debt-ceiling crisis because they thought they would win.

The surrender terms negotiated by Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have an interesting provision, which would change the way Congress votes on the next debt-limit increase:

The plan includes a proposal offered by McConnell in the 2011 debt ceiling crisis that allows Congress to disapprove of the debt ceiling increase, which means lawmakers will formally vote on whether to reject a debt ceiling increase until Feb. 7. Obama can veto that legislation if it passes. If Congress fails as expected to gather a two-thirds majority to override the veto, the debt ceiling would be raised.

If that’s confusing, the gist is that it changes the mechanics of the vote to make failure nearly impossible. Instead of needing Congress to approve a debt-ceiling increase, Congress has to override an Obama veto in order to prevent it. So now it would take a two-thirds vote to trigger the kind of terrifying failure that before could have been triggered by a 50 percent–plus–one vote.

That mechanism would utterly defang the debt ceiling, returning it to its historical place as an opportunity for ineffectual posturing rather than extortion. Alas, it only applies to the next debt-ceiling vote. But Democrats hope that using this method this time will set a precedent that eases the way for Congress to make it a permanent procedure. It seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, but the groundwork is being laid to one day lock up dangerous weaponry lying around the American political system and prevent future crises.

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Photo-Illustration: Mary-Louise Price; Photos: 20th Century Fox (Speed still), Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images (Boehner), JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images (Obama)