Commentary Magazine


What’s the Plan?

In the great 1979 comedy The In-Laws, New Jersey dentist Alan Arkin finds himself enmeshed in a global plot by intelligence agent Peter Falk, who maintains his calm in the face of all difficulties. Finally they find themselves in front of a firing squad in Central America. “What’s the plan?” Arkin says eagerly.

“There’s no plan, Shel,” says Falk. “”I’m all out. What you got?”

I understand why 25 or 30 House Republicans don’t like Speaker John Boehner’s plan to raise the debt ceiling. It doesn’t do enough to deal with lowering the nation’s indebtedness, they say. Even though it doesn’t raise taxes, it represents a capitulation to liberal attitudes about government, they say. And so on. So they won’t support it, and so Boehner has put off a vote on it.

But what I want to know from them is what Arkin wanted to know from Falk: What’s the plan? What happens now? And I fear the answer is: There’s no plan, Shel.

The problem with the caucus that wants to vote “no” and their supporters is that they have no alternative plan. Or rather, their only alternative plan is the firing squad—which is to say, the debt ceiling is not raised. In which case we are entering uncharted territory that involves not only a threat to the nation’s credit rating but also panic in the worldwide markets and a kind of triage when it comes to federal spending that could have all kinds of frightening consequences we can’t anticipate.

Some of the no votes on the GOP side want the crisis. They think it will force deeper spending cuts. Others don’t want to vote one because they promised in no uncertain terms during the 2010 election cycle that they wouldn’t. Still others don’t want to because they’re afraid of a primary challenge from the right. And some wondered with merit why they should vote for a bill that Senate Democrats had declared dead on arrival even before it had been sent to the Senate.

Boehner and the House leadership were clearly hoping that four or five right-wing Democrats would go along with them and give the entire “no” caucus permission to vote no while the bill would still pass. Two things happened to make that impossible. First, the Democratic party made it clear it was taking the line that the Boehner bill was evil and stupid and dead. Second, the worst thing a right-wing Democrat in a right-wing district could do is cast a “moderate” vote, as it would create the perfect condition for a Republican candidate in his district to get to his right and oust him.

For weeks now, I’ve been hearing and reading all manner of “hold the line” and “Boehner is a sellout” rhetoric. But what I haven’t heard is a plan that gets us beyond the moment when the debt ceiling deadline is reached. It’s true here are always possibilities. But if the Boehner vote fails today, those who torpedoed it had better have an answer to Falk’s question: “What’s the plan?” Because if they don’t have one other than the hope that the firing squad will miss, they are going to bring a lot of people down with them when the gunfire starts.