Commentary Magazine


Debt-Ceiling Politics—Churchill or Animal House?

With 88 hours or so left to go until the White House’s declared deadline of August 2 for the debt ceiling to be raised, here’s the state of play:

Speaker of the House John Boehner is desperately trying to defuse the crisis with a split-the-baby piece of legislation that raises the debt ceiling for six months, matches its increase dollar-for-dollar in cuts (over 10 years), does not increase taxes, and takes it all up again at the end of the year—with an evenly divided partisan panel determining where things go now.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has declared Boehner’s bill dead in the water, because he has a bill that features cuts too but raises the debt ceiling high enough to take the country through until after the 2012 election. He is vowing to undertake a parliamentary maneuver in which the Senate takes up the House bill, strips it of all its provisions, replaces them with Reid’s provisions, and sends it back to the House—at which point the House will either have to accept it or vote it down. I call this a maneuver because Reid could also bring his proposal up in the Senate as its own bill and then bring his bill and Boehner’s bill into a conference committee where the terms can be hashed out between them, voted on again by both chambers, and sent to the president for a signature.

Reid’s plan is risky. Republicans in the House will not vote for it but will have a credible case to make that they had a perfectly good plan of their own that Reid hijacked in an almost immoral way—solely to protect Obama’s reelection chances. And if they don’t vote for it, there literally isn’t time to manage a debt-ceiling increase before Sunday/Monday at midnight. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader who proposed simply raising the debt ceiling without cuts or taxes two weeks ago and is therefore deserving of being considered an extremely moderate voice in this debate, said this morning that Reid’s strategy ensures the U.S. will go into default.

The White House has no plan and is getting into ridiculous and embarrassing fights with journalists lying bald-facedly about how it has one. It seems to be relying almost entirely on its own salvation in this mess on a compliant press telling an anti-Republican story from his perspective. That too is risky, because he’s been very public about all this and is certain to be tied in the public consciousness to whatever happens. Meaning, if it’s bad, he’s going to pay a heavy price.

Conservatives are terribly split. Some think Boehner has done his best to be responsible, to consider the concerns of his members, to find a path out of an unprecedented morass. Others think he is a sell-out, that he should be “holding the line” and insisting on a plan that actually eats into the burgeoning national debt and not merely the deficit (i.e, the interest owed on the debt). One of the leading voices of the “hold the line” side, Erick Erickson of Red State, suggested yesterday that those who feel differently—like Charles Krauthammer and Thomas Sowell, among others—should be sent to “a mental ward.” He and other hardliners seem intent on staking out the position that a) a debt-ceiling collapse won’t be a disaster, or b) it will and it should because we need to get our house in order, or c) it’s somehow not fair that Republicans keep submitting plans and Democrats keep rejecting them without putting forward a plan of their own.

The long-term hardliner view of the crisis and the necessity to address systematically through the lowering of the actual debt are correct without question. No one on the Right disagrees. The problem is that Sunday night looms. And while the hardliners may feel like Churchill, saying “We will fight them on the beaches…” to my ears they are increasingly sounding like Otter, the devil-may-care Lothario of National Lampoon’s Animal House, who is stirred to revolt against his college dean: “We gotta take these bastards. Now we could do it with conventional weapons, but that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part!”

To which Bluto, the barely sentient Id of the dorm, says, “We’re just the guys to do it.”

Clock is ticking. 87 hours to go…

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