the national interest

Stop Fretting: The Debt-Ceiling Crisis Is Over! [Updated]

January 1981: United States hostages departing an airplane on their return from Iran after being held for 444 days. One of the hostages is waving his fists in the air, and a sign on the plane door says, 'Welcome Back to Freedom'.
Photo: Express/Getty Images

If you’re reading the newspapers just now to get caught up on the debt-ceiling crisis, you may have the impression that events are now spinning utterly out of control. “A day that was supposed to bring Washington to the edge of resolving the fiscal showdown instead seemed to bring chaos and retrenching,” reports the New York Times. “A campaign to persuade House Republicans to lift the federal debt limit collapsed in humiliating failure Tuesday, leaving Washington careering toward a critical deadline just two days away, with no clear plan for avoiding a government default,” warns the Washington Post.

This is the opposite of what is going on. In fact, the events of yesterday amounted to utter success. The debt ceiling will be lifted, the crisis is over, and so, too, may be the larger Constitutional struggle it unleashed.

The mistaken impression of chaos and collapse was left by the collapse of the House Republican plan. But the House Republicans are the hostage-takers. It’s good that their plan collapsed. Their plan was to insist on winning at least some concession from President Obama, testing his resolve not to be extorted, and, at least, pushing the crisis until the last moment.

The House bill failed because it relied entirely on Republican votes, which requires near-unanimity from the Republican caucus. A small number of Republicans so fanatical they refuse to even work within existing political constraints, and therefore regularly undermine the right’s leverage, refused to support any bill. Having spent the day trying to cobble together even a tiny ransom demand, House GOP leaders simply gave up. “It’s all over. We’ll take the Senate deal,” a senior Republican aide told National Review’s Jonathan Strong.

[Update: per multiple sources, the House leadership has agreed to bring the Senate bill to a vote first, expediting its passage.]

The Senate bill is a deal to lift the debt ceiling and reopen the government, without a ransom payment. That agreement is set to be announced, but the contours, which were described to me by an aide, will satisfy the Democratic demand not to make concessions for raising the debt ceiling or reopening the government. The House leadership, as everybody on Capitol Hill now expects, will quickly take up the Senate bill and put this debacle behind them. Rounding up the votes should not be a problem. The entire Democratic caucus will support it if needed, leaving Republicans to find just a handful of votes, well within the number that never wanted to shut down the government to begin with.

Why aren’t we more elated? One reason is that the crisis has exerted such a heavy toll so far. Consumer confidence has plunged and the government shutdown has thrown sand in the gears of the recovery. Ending the crisis puts one in the mind of Pulp Fiction’s Marcellus Wallace after being liberated from rapist kidnappers:

We are pretty far from okay, but it beats spending the rest of your life getting raped in a dungeon, which is more or less what the House Republicans had planned. The Republican debt-ceiling gambit was meant to force Obama to accept the GOP agenda without any Republican concessions — a depressing enough outcome on its own. But it also would have dragged in a reordering of the Constitutional order and the institutionalization of endless crises and panics. We can’t be certain Republicans will never hold the debt ceiling hostage again; but Obama has now held firm twice in a row, and if he hasn’t completely crushed the Republican expectation that they can extract a ransom, he has badly damaged it. Threatening to breach the debt ceiling and failing to win a prize is costly behavior for Congress — you anger business and lose face with your supporters when you capitulate. As soon as Republicans come to believe they can’t win, they’ll stop playing.

Most of the analysis has focused on the mind-boggling stupidity of Republicans in Congress, who blundered into a debacle that failed in exactly the way they were warned it would. The episode will be retold and fought over for years to come, perfectly emblemizing the party’s internal disorganization, mindless belligerence, and confinement within an ideological echo chamber that sealed out important warnings of failure. A grassroots revolt forced Republicans to shut down the government two weeks before the debt ceiling deadline, serving to weaken the party’s standing at the moment they hoped to hold the default gun to Obama’s head. (It’s possible they lesson they’ll take away from their failure will only be not to shut down the government and threaten default at the same time, requiring another showdown.)

But it also represents a huge Democratic success — or, at least, the closest thing to success that can be attained under the circumstances. Of the Republican Party’s mistakes, the most rational was its assumption that Democrats would ultimately bend. This was not merely their own recycled certainty — “nobody believes that,” a confident Paul Ryan insisted of Obama’s claims he wouldn’t be extorted — but widespread, world-weary conventional wisdom. Democrats would have to pay a ransom. Republicans spent weeks prodding for every weakness. Would Senate Democrats from deep red states be pried away? Would Obama fold in the face of their threat?

Part of what undergirded Democratic unity went beyond a (correct) calculation that it would be dangerous to pay any ransom at all. Democrats seemed to share a genuine moral revulsion at the tactics and audacity of a party that had lost a presidential election by 5 million votes, lost another chance to win a favorable Senate map, and lost the national House vote demanding the winning party give them its way without compromise.

Probably the single biggest Republican mistake was in failing to understand the way its behavior would create unity in the opposing party. Not until the very end, when the crisis was well under way, did any conservatives even acknowledge the Democratic view that the GOP had threatened basic governing norms. Ted Cruz and his minions may have undertaken a hopeless crusade, but they dragged along the Paul Ryan Republicans who all along seemed to think their extortion scheme was a simple business deal. Its collapse is one of the brightest days Washington has seen in a grim era.

Stop Fretting: The Debt-Ceiling Crisis Is Over!