the national interest

Boehner to Obama: Can I Please Take You Hostage?

House Republicans have spent weeks fending off right-wing demands that they shut down the government unless President Obama agrees to destroy his own health-care reform. They’re currently trying to wriggle out of this demand by promising instead to use the debt ceiling to force Obama to destroy his health-care reform, which is an even more dangerous threat. So how do House Republicans plan to wriggle out of that promise? By getting President Obama to help them. John Boehner is pleading with Obama to combine negotiations over the debt ceiling and the budget. There’s really only one answer Obama can give here: Boehner can go fuck himself.

Boehner is desperately trying to combine two separate issues: negotiating over budget policy and negotiating over whether Congress should trigger a default on the national debt. Why negotiate the two together? Boehner argues:

I reminded them that for decades, the White House, the Congress, have used the debt limit to find bipartisan solutions on the deficit and the debt. The types of changes were signed into law by Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and President Obama himself two years ago. So President Obama is going to have to deal with this, as well. It’s really no different. You can’t talk about increasing the debt limit unless you’re willing to make changes and reforms that begin to solve the spending problem that Washington has.”

So we have two arguments here. The first one is that there have been times in the past when Congress has lifted the debt ceiling and also passed changes to fiscal policy. That is true. It can be convenient to wrap up the automatic step of lifting the debt ceiling into bills that change levels of taxes and spending, because a separate vote is unnecessary in the first place.

But Boehner isn’t proposing to attach a perfunctory debt-ceiling hike to “bipartisan solutions,” as has happened in the past. He is proposing that the opposition party extract unacceptable conditions as the price of lifting the debt ceiling. That is an unprecedented demand. Under the Bush presidency, Democrats objected that tax cuts had created un unsustainable fiscal position for the government, but it never even occurred to them to threaten to trigger a debt default to force Bush to repeal his tax cuts. Before 2011, the debt ceiling was an occasion for posturing by the out-party and was sometimes raised in conjunction with mutually agreeable policy changes, but the opposition never used the threat of default as a hostage.

Boehner’s correct that the hostage-taking negotiation he wants to hold again did occur once before in 2011. But that was a white-knuckle experience that very nearly led to default, has put in place an extremely stupid policy, and amounted to a gigantic blunder by Obama that he is rightly determined not to repeat. Enshrining the precedent that the opposition party can use the debt ceiling to extract otherwise unacceptable conditions would create a permanent cycle of crisis, where every fiscal negotiation carries a systemic risk. Democrats would be much better off letting Republicans default on the debt right now than submitting to a new normal whereby they get jacked up for concessions over and over until eventually there’s a default anyway. That is why Obama can’t go along with Boehner’s innocuous-sounding request to combine debt-ceiling negotiations with fiscal-policy negotiations.

How about we negotiate the appropriate level of Dennis Hopper’s police pension in a calmer setting? Photo: 20th Century Fox

Boehner’s last sentence gives the game away. He begins by asserting that “you can’t” lift the debt ceiling without making a separate budget deal. But of course you can. Congress does it all the time. Whether or not you decide to change budget policy is unrelated to whether or not you should trigger an unnecessary debt default.

Boehner ends the sentence by demanding that Obama “solve the spending problem.” That talking point is the Republican way of summarizing the party’s stance on fiscal issues, which holds that the deficit is a huge existential crisis but must be reduced entirely through spending cuts, without reducing any tax deductions.

The two parties don’t agree on that. Obama thinks the long-term deficit should be reduced through a mix of reduced tax deductions and lower spending. Boehner clearly is personally willing to compromise in some way on this but just as clearly cannot get House Republicans to agree to compromise. Not only is Boehner unable to make a long-term budget deal that his members can accept, but he also can’t even figure out how to keep the government open, as The Wall Street Journal reports in a paywalled news story:

In a bipartisan meeting Thursday among House and Senate leaders, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) asked Mr. Boehner what other concession could be made to satisfy conservatives, other than defunding the health-care law. The speaker said there was none, according to Republican and Democratic aides briefed on the meeting.

Boehner said nothing will appease them but defunding Obamacare,” one aide said.

The debt ceiling is Boehner’s way around this. He wants to combine the debt ceiling with negotiations over the federal budget as a way of luring Obama into a position where Boehner can negotiate budget policy without making policy concessions.

But why on Earth would Obama agree to do that? The fact that Boehner is phrasing this as a request reveals the complete absurdity of the situation. Mr. President, would you mind dropping off your bus so I can strap a bomb to it and then make demands? Uh, no, let’s not do that.

Boehner to Obama: Can I Please Take You Hostage?