Jim Newell,  February 12, 2014

Congress Stuns World with Minor Hint of Functionality


first place ribbon
Great job, Congress! You functioned briefly, for once, as you are supposed to function./Nirmal Dulal

Yesterday, the world witnessed a major breakthrough in contemporary United States governance: the speaker of the House of Representatives decided, for the first time in years, that it would be counterproductive and perhaps even strange to threaten the arbitrary destruction of the global economy. Instead, he decided not to threaten the arbitrary destruction of the global economy, and he put to the floor of the People’s Chamber a vote on whether to allow the global economy to continue existing. While the vast majority of his majority party voted against the continued existence of the global economy, most members of the minority voted for it, and so the measure passed. Everyone join speaker John Boehner in awkward song!

We’re number one! We’re number one! We’re number . . . one? Hmm. Maybe it’s a little too soon to boldly assert our one-ness.

The liberal Internet is in full-on victory mode. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent sums up the merriment in a post titled, “GOP debt limit extortion is dead.”

The crucial point about this outcome, should it happen, is that it will be the direct result of the decision by Dems—in the last two debt limit fights—to refuse to negotiate with Republicans. That was a major course correction on Obama’s part in which he learned in office from failure. After getting badly burned in the 2011 debt limit showdown—which left us saddled with the austerity that continues to hold back the recovery—Obama recognized what many of his supporters were pleading with him for years to recognize: There was no way to enter into a conventional negotiation with House Republicans.

Now that this realization has driven Dem strategy through two debt limit fights, it may not be too soon to pronounce GOP debt limit extortion dead.

Sargent makes all the right points about how we got to this position, and how it critical it was for Obama and the Democrats to ignore all temptations to negotiate policy ahead of this death cliff.

The only issue, though, is this “for good” business. Maybe it’s clear that “debt limit extortion” is dead for the current Congress. The next Congress, though, will probably have to learn these terrible lessons all over again.

 Because it’s a fair bet that Republicans will take over the Senate in November. That, after all, is the only reason they stopped playing debt-limit and government-shutdown footsie in the past couple of months: they’ve learned at long last that it’s not advisable to pursue obvious, colossal unforced errors in an election year. If/once they have both houses of Congress under their control, though, there’s going to be a much stronger appetite among members—and, more importantly, much higher expectations among the GOP base—to use their enhanced powers to extract policy concessions. This is why, even though it’s only February, the 2014 legislative session is considered “over” in terms of anything meaningful making its way through Congress. Pathetic or not, it makes sense for Republicans: why pick a fight over the budget or the debt ceiling or compromise on immigration reform now when it’s likely you’ll be able to press the issue closer to your own terms in 2015?

If there’s a Republican House and Senate the next time the debt limit comes up, around March 2015, things will take either of two routes to the same destination.

The first and terrible path would be that Republicans, feeling pressure to make a stand with their newly doubled legislative powers, will attempt to attach debt limit legislation to insane things like a constitutional amendment banning the Democratic Party. Obama will reiterate that he will not negotiate over the debt limit and veto all dirty bills that come his way. Then, on the last day before global economic destruction, the House and the Senate will pass “clean” debt limit legislation mostly on the backs of Democratic votes, and lessons about debt limit extortion will be relearned the hard way.

The second path would be that Republicans realize picking a fight over the debt limit under any condition is stupid and would damage their hopes of retaking the White House in 2016, so the House and Senate pass “clean” debt limit legislation mostly on the backs of Democratic votes.

Obviously your Baffler blogger hopes that the second path is the path taken, but it’s always a safer bet in contemporary American politics to assume the worst. So don’t stop stockpiling cans of beans in your post-civilization bunkers just yet.

Jim Newell has covered politics as a staff writer at Gawker, an editor at Wonkette, and a contributor to the Guardian.

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