The end of a nightmare, a template for another

The Senate this afternoon voted 74 to 26 to approve the debt-ceiling agreement, following last night’s 269 to 161 vote in the House. The bill will head to President Obama, who will sign it with less than half a day remaining before the official deadline is reached.

That is, I suppose, the good news, insofar as avoiding default was the principal goal. The bad news, in addition to the legislation’s much-discussed flaws, is that the relevant institutions have established a dangerous precedent.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein explained this morning, “Those who have engaged in hostage-taking — threatening the economy and the full faith and credit of the U.S. Treasury to get their way — will conclude that their strategy worked. They will feel emboldened to pursue it again every time that we have to raise the debt limit in the future.”

There’s no need to consider this speculative. Leading Republicans have already made their intentions clear. Consider what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Fox News last night about the deal:

“It set the template for the future. In the future, Neil, no president — in the near future, maybe in the distant future — is going to be able to get the debt ceiling increased without a re-ignition of the same discussion of how do we cut spending and get America headed in the right direction. I expect the next president, whoever that is, is going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again in 2013, so we’ll be doing it all over.”

McConnell made a similar comment on the Senate floor this morning, boasting about how policymakers have established an “entire new template” for raising the debt ceiling in the future.

On ABC over the weekend, uber-activist Grover Norquist echoed the same line.

“[W]e’ve set the precedent…. We’re going to insist from now on, any time the debt ceiling goes up, dollar for dollar, spending comes down.”

In case anyone’s forgotten, over the last 72 years, Congress has raised the debt ceiling 89 times. Lawmakers from both parties, working with presidents from both parties, have treated this as routine housekeeping. Preconditions have never been applied to this process, and neither party has ever used the law to hold the nation’s full faith and credit hostage. Clean debt-ceiling votes have never been especially popular, but they’ve been a standard American norm for generations.

This year, far-right Republicans changed the game, and they apparently have no intention of going back. This wasn’t a one-time hostage strategy, threatening the nation’s well being in a fit of partisan rage; this was the creation of a new norm, to be repeated forever more. Why? Because the dangerous scheme worked — when radicalism is rewarded, the result is more radicalism.

It sets the stage for the next debt-ceiling showdown, likely to occur in early 2013. Between now and then, the more attention is focused on eliminating this law, the better.